Venezuelan children head back to school amid dire shortages

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CARACAS — Venezuelan children returned to half-empty classrooms this fall as schools struggled with budget and teacher shortfalls, and parents scrambled to pay for food, let alone new uniforms and notebooks.

The academic year is off to a grim start in the oil-rich nation, where a hyperinflationary crisis has triggered an exodus of residents fleeing shortages of staples such as food and medicines.

The collapse is the result of years of economic mismanagement under President Hugo Chávez, who died in 2013 after leading a “21st Century Revolution” that his successor, Nicolás Maduro, has continued. Corruption and a drop in oil prices were part of the disastrous recipe.

The crisis has hit the education system hard. Two weeks after their mid-September start date, schools across the country — public and private — were at just 60 percent capacity on average, according to Gustavo Padrón, head of Se Educa, a nongovernmental organization that tracks education in Venezuela.

“There’s an education emergency,” said Fausto Romeo, head of the National Association of Private Educational Institutions. “We’re heading toward a standstill.”

Shrinking student enrollment has reduced school budgets. Romeo also estimates that 20,000 teachers have emigrated since April, and 35,000 in the past two years — nearly 10 percent of the total.

In Caracas, first-grader Arantxa Centeno, 6, goes to a private school that has 20 percent fewer students than last year. Its dining hall closed because barely anyone was buying lunch.

Maribel Torres’s son Gabriel Puerta, 9, attends a public school in worn-out shoes and pants that are too tight and short. His father earns minimum wage at an automobile company and can’t afford to buy him a new uniform.

Joseph Chacon, 9, doesn’t have a fourth-grade teacher yet; the last one emigrated. In the past month, his public-school classroom has been mixed with others, including the first grade one day.

“I want my kids to graduate with something in their brain,” said his mother, Yuri Chacon.

Maduro hailed the back-to-school season last month, saying it had started “with strength and energy.” And Education Minister Aristóbulo Istúriz vowed that the government would open “a large number of institutions” soon, to make up for the rampant closing of private schools, and expand a state food program for schools.

Parents aren’t hopeful.

“One thing is what the government says, and another one is the reality, which is that they are doing nothing to truly improve our children’s education,” Torres said.

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