COVID-19 devastates an educational system already in crisis

COVID-19 devastates an educational system already in crisis

[Carlos Lusverti and Rocío Quintero M are both Legal Advisers for the International Commission of Jurists]

The Venezuelan educational system has been in rapid decline. In 2016, in the midst of a wider national humanitarian crisis, teachers started leaving school due to a drastic decrease in teachers’ wages. There was also a significant augment in the student dropout rate. Compounding these dire circumstances, the Venezuelan Government declared a national quarantine on 17 March 2020, and students were compelled to remain at home, creating new barriers to access education. In April 2020, the Ministry of Education announced that classes would be conducted using “long-distance methods” for the rest of the year. In the end, in-person classes only partially resumed in late October 2021, after 19 months of remote learning.

The precarious conditions of the educational system before the COVID-19 pandemic, along with the effects of the pandemic, have left Venezuela in a situation in which student attendance continues to drop, enormously underpaid teachers continue to resign, and the quality education remains perilously low. These circumstances amount to systematic violations of the right to education, as the authorities continue to fall short of their corresponding obligations in terms of international law.

Education in a humanitarian crisis

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit Venezuela, the country had already been suffering from a humanitarian situation reaching crisis proportions that had severely impacted the education system. In 2019, local NGOs, such as PROVEA, and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), reported considerable deterioration of the infrastructure of schools and shortages of essential services in schools, such as electricity, clean water and sanitation. Similarly, in early 2018, local NGOs reported that the school feeding program only provided food two days per week. This limited access to food was reported to be insufficient to ensure adequate nutrition because of the low quality of food provided.

Making matters worse, in the years leading up to the pandemic, several local NGOs documented high levels of dropouts in Venezuelan schools, although there is no official data to this effect. For instance, the 2019 and 2021 National Survey of Living Conditions (Encuesta Nacional de Condiciones de Vida, Encovi) reported that school attendance for people aged 3 to 24 was around 70 per cent in 2018 and 2019. In addition,  the 2018 National Survey of Living Conditions found that only 50 per cent of students were attending school regularly. The reasons cited for school absence included the lack of (a) drinking water, electricity or food in their households, (b) food in their schools, and (c) public transportation to go to school.

In October 2021, when a partial return to schools was announced, some teachers denounced the Government’s failure to take measures to implement biosecurity measures or fix long-standing deterioration of the infrastructure of schools and shortages of essential services, even during the lengthy school closures. Overall, they believed the return to school was not safe for students and teachers. In early 2022, the situation was bad enough that the trade union Formación de Dirigentes Sindicales (Fordisi) asserted that as many as 80 per cent of schools did not even have access to water and electricity services. In addition, and perhaps in part as a consequence of the poor condition of schools, a study led by DEVTech Systems confirmed that the number of students attending school had continued to decline from 7.71 million in 2018 to only 6.5 million in 2021.

Remote learning: a new educational barrier

There are several factors that help explain the barriers that Venezuelan students faced to access remote learning during the pandemic. First, Venezuela has among the slowest broadband speeds globally, and internet penetration reaches below 40 per cent of the population. Internet access has also been limited due to an unaffordable monthly fee for internet service.

Second, the lack of maintenance of the power grid, coupled with vandalism to it, has caused blackouts and power rationing schemes in several parts of the country. In 2020 and 2021, Freedom House documented various blackouts that “limited connectivity in many [Venezuelan] states”. The blackouts impact a range of social issues including access to quality education over the internet.

Third, access to computers, tablets, or mobiles is also limited. In early 2021, the organization Anova Policy Research calculated that 70.5 percent of Venezuelan households did not have a computer. These findings were confirmed in the 2021 National Survey of Living Conditions.

Fourth, parents or guardians lack the expertise or educational background to help children with at-home learning activities during extended periods of remote learning. It has been estimated that 38.6 per cent of children aged 6 to 17 live with adults who had not graduated from high school. In addition, the Government failed to take effective measures to improve access to internet services or widely provide access to computers or tablets.

Deterioration of working conditions for teachers

Since 2016, working conditions for teachers in Venezuela have been precarious, with extremely low wages being a key issue. In mid-2019, a Venezuelan Teacher Union, Sindicato Venezolano de Maestros, denounced the state of affairs in which a large number of teachers had resigned because their salaries were not enough to cover even their basic needs. Although there is no official data in this respect, it has been estimated by NGO FundaRedes that as many as 100 000 teachers in public schools may have resigned in 2019 alone. Some of them migrated to other countries, while others decided to pursue work in different fields.

During the pandemic, the Ministry of Education continued to fail to ensure badly needed increases in teacher’s wages. As a result, at the beginning of 2022, teachers continued demanding an increase in their salaries or bonuses in dollars.

The gap between their salaries and the cost of living remains glaring. While a public teacher earns only around 10 dollars per month, the cost of the basic food basket for a family of five people was around 365 dollars in February 2022. Notably, taking advantage of remote learning, some teachers were compelled to take up a second job to cover their basic needs during the pandemic.

As a consequence, it is not surprising that teachers have continued resigning since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Venezuelan Teacher Union, Federación Venezolana de Maestros, stated that by early 2020, some 40 to 50 per cent of teachers affiliated with the educational system had abandoned their profession due to low and insecure salaries. Similarly, another Venezuelan Teacher Union, Colegio de Profesores de Venezuela, indicated that that there are only half of many teachers needed in certain subjects, including mathematics, physics, biology, and English. Of equal concern is that the Ministry of Education has, instead of providing justified wage increases, seemingly sought to address the shortage of teachers by replacing them with unqualified personnel.

International obligations on the right to education

The poor state of the Venezuelan education system is evidence that Venezuela is failing in its obligation under international law and requirements of domestic law to ensure the right to education. This right is not only established in the Venezuelan Constitution (Article 102), but also in human rights treaties to which Venezuela is a State party, such as the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Articles 28 and 29) and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, ICESCR (Article 13).

In relation to the quality of education, the UN Human Rights Council’s Special Rapporteur has underscored that quality education includes four key elements: “(i) a minimum level of student acquisition of knowledge, values, skills and competencies; (ii) adequate school infrastructure, facilities and environment; (iii) a well-qualified teaching force; (iv) a school that is open to the participation of all”. Along the same lines, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR Committee), the supervisory body for the ICESCR, has underlined that acceptability of education includes curricula and teaching methods that are “relevant, culturally appropriate and of good quality”.

Concerning infrastructure, the ICESCR Committee has stressed that States Parties must take measures to ensure the availability of education, including by ensuring availability of “buildings or other protection from the elements, sanitation facilities for both sexes, safe drinking water, trained teachers receiving domestically competitive salaries.” They also must provide for “computer facilities and information technology”, which necessarily require access to electricity.

Along the same lines, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Education has also emphasized these factors for the enjoyment of the right to education in the specific context of COVID-19, stressing the interdependence and interrelation of the right to education with other human rights, including the right to water and sanitation. Water and sanitation are required in schools for a variety of reasons including for drinking, food preparation, personal sanitation, and hygiene. In addition, the Special Rapporteur has stressed the importance of guaranteeing fair working conditions to teachers in context of the pandemic, including “fair remuneration”.


In the context of an already troubled education system, the COVID-19 pandemic aggravated access to education in Venezuela. Limited access to the internet and computers severely affected the possibility of thousands of Venezuelan students receiving quality education through remote learning. Returning to school has not translated into a solution to this problem: infrastructure is precarious, and teachers keep leaving schools due to meager salaries. These conditions compromise access to quality education, make children’s attendance less likely, and increase the probability of increasing dropout rates.

The Venezuelan authorities have an obligation to take decisive, far-reaching and urgent actions which are long overdue in order to guarantee the right to education. This requires allocating the necessary budget to significantly improve the infrastructure of schools and offer fair salaries and social benefits to teachers. Similarly, Venezuelan authorities should ensure that all schools adopt proper sanitary measures, including access to drinking water, handwashing facilities, functional toilets, as well as soap and other cleaning products, and ensure access to electricity, computers and other information technology necessary for quality education.

Finally, the authorities should carefully analyze the impact of both the ongoing humanitarian crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic on access to quality education, and devise and implement strategies to support the learning gaps widened during the school closures. The future of a generation of Venezuelan children is at stake.

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General, International Human Rights Law, Latin & South America
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