Children play during recess at a school in the Petare area of Caracas, Venezuela, on Sept. 27. (Andrea Hernandez)

Children wait in line for recess to begin on the first day of school in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 27. (Andrea Hernandez)

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.


LEFT: Joseph Chacon, 9, poses in front of his home at San Isidro in the Petare area of Caracas, Venezuela, on Sept. 26. RIGHT: Three children play before school begins in San Isidro, a low-income neighborhood in the Petare area of Caracas, on Aug. 22. (Photos by Andrea Hernandez)

Maribel Torres hugs her son Gabriel, 9, before he leaves for school in Montecristo, another area of Petare in Caracas, on Sept. 25. (Andrea Hernandez)

Arantxa Centeno, 6, stands on her parents’ balcony before leaving for school in Caracas on Sept. 28. (Andrea Hernandez)

Mardolei Prin fixes daughter Arantxa Centeno’s uniform for a portrait before the girl leaves for school in Caracas on Sept. 28. (Andrea Hernandez)

Yuri Chacon sits on her children’s bed in their home at San Isidro in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 26. (Andrea Hernandez)

LEFT: A fridge’s electricity cable hangs unplugged in Maribel Torres’s home at San Isidro in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 25. She unplugs her appliances so that they aren’t damaged by power surges after outages. RIGHT: Before leaving for school, Joseph Chacon, 9, showers at San Isidro in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 26. Many of the homes in this low-income neighborhood do not have indoor plumbing and have also been experiencing  water shortages. (Photos by Andrea Hernandez)

Joseph Chacon’s school uniform rests on an armchair at San Isidro in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 26. (Andrea Hernandez)

Joseph Chacon, 9, poses for a portrait in his school at San Isidro in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 26. (Andrea Hernandez)

A boy eats during recess at school in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 27. (Andrea Hernandez)

Children listen to their teacher on their first day of school in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 27. (Andrea Hernandez)

LEFT: Children sit on the floor for their presentation on their first day of school in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 27. RIGHT: A boy plays with bills from the old decimal coinage system on a desk at a school in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 27. (Photos by Andrea Hernandez)

Yuri Chacon walks to school with two of her children, Josemith and Joseph, at San Isidro in the Petare area of Caracas on Sept. 26. (Andrea Hernandez)

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