Two weeks ago, Marco started working in a supermarket in La Paz, stacking shelves. It’s not what he was expecting from 2020, but with the coronavirus pandemic pummeling Bolivia’s economy, he appreciates the money.
“My parents ended up completely out of work and my little sister has epilepsy and the medication is very expensive,” he says.
Until last month, Marco’s days were a grueling schedule of work at a mechanic shop in the mornings, online classes in the afternoons, and homework at night. Despite the pandemic, he was keen to finish his final year at school so he could start university.
In early August, plans changed. Yerko Núñez, Bolivia’s presidency minister, announced that the school year would finish early, because with the country’s poor internet infrastructure, many children couldn’t attend classes online. Instead of sitting exams, pupils would automatically pass on to the next academic year.
Now, school leavers like Marco, 18, are faced with the prospect of graduating from high school in a deep recession, having received just a few weeks of classroom education before the pandemic hit. The pandemic came hot on the heels of the coup against Evo Morales in November 2019, when lengthy roadblocks and protests also disrupted school in many areas.
Marco was in the top three in his class before the pandemic hit and dreams of studying engineering. He hopes to find a way to pay private tuition to make up for the gaps in the public system. “Nobody in my family has studied,” he said. “I want to pave the way for my sisters.”
The decision to declare an end to the academic year soon descended into a legal wrangle split down party-political lines. A court swiftly overturned the decision on the grounds that it violated the right to education. But the Ministry of Education retorted in a testy communiqué that the decision would need to be reviewed by the Plurinational Constitutional Tribunal before it could be considered final, accusing the judge of political bias and describing the legal challenge as seeking to “damage and undermine the academic year” because of the political ties the parties who brought the action had to Morales’ party, the MAS.
A confusing limbo followed, in which many teachers continued to give online classes to rapidly dwindling numbers of pupils who increasingly viewed attendance as voluntary.