It has been almost two years since Honduras’ education ministry suspended classroom schooling following the first detected cases of COVID-19 in March 2020. The pandemic forced students and teachers into virtual learning in a country with low levels of technology and high rates of poverty. Honduras is currently the only country in Latin America that has not returned to in-person classes in some way.
By Francis Cálix
File photos by Martín Cálix/Contracorriente
“Honduras is the only country in Latin America that has not yet opened its schools,” said UNICEF Communication Specialist Hector Espinal in an interview with Contracorriente. On March 13, 2020, the Ministry of Education initiated a 14-day suspension of in-person classes for pre-primary, primary, and middle schools. But the suspension has lasted almost two years, forcing students to attend classes online.
The vice minister of education, Gloria Menjívar, recently announced that the 2022 school year will begin on February 1, when public schools enroll students for online classes. While El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua returned to in-person classes last year, Honduran authorities have issued no official statements regarding in-person classes. The Ministry of Education has only communicated, “It will be up to the new administration to make decisions regarding the return to in-person or hybrid learning.” Education Minister Arnaldo Bueso “will provide the next administration with all the pertinent information it needs to make the right decisions.”
Daniel Sponda, a teachers’ union leader (Colegio Profesional Unión Magisterial de Honduras – COPRUMH), believes that before in-person classes resume, certain conditions need to be met that their union raised early in the pandemic. Although they have high hopes for the new government, the union will be “persistent” in pursuing its demands.
Sponda told Contracorriente that three main requirements must be fulfilled for in-person classes to resume: “Vaccination, a sanitary school environment, and a biosecurity protocol that will enable us to minimize the spread of COVID-19 as much as possible.” Sponda also wants repairs made to educational facilities that are in poor condition and believes that they should continue with online classes until that is done.
According to Ministry of Education data, 534 education centers were damaged by Hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020, affecting 9,666 students in 14 departments. According to a UNICEF report, the hurricanes damaged almost 81% of the nation’s schools.
Sponda expects that President-elect Xiomara Castro’s administration will initiate in-person classes for most schools during its first 100 days in office and that all schools will be repaired by the end of 2022.
According to Castro’s plan for the first 100 days, there are six priorities for education: vaccination, initiating the school year, social programs, mass communication campaigns, dialogue, and a “digital republic” initiative. The plan also states that out of 2.3 million school-age children, 1.3 million children between the ages of 5 and 11 are unvaccinated, and 435,927 children between the ages of 12 and 17 have been vaccinated.
However, Ministry of Health data provided to Contracorriente indicates that as of December 30, 2021, at least 528,463 students between the ages of 12 and 17 have received a first dose, and 337,458 are fully vaccinated. No children between the ages of 5 and 11 have been vaccinated. According to the Strengthening Honduran Education initiative (Fortalecimiento Educativo por Honduras – FOREDUH), 1.67 million children were enrolled in school in 2021, a 17% decline from previous years.
UNICEF’s Héctor Espinal says that the Honduran educational system has been weak for decades, and that the COVID-19 pandemic has weakened it further. He holds the Honduran government responsible for maintaining school infrastructure, implementing biosecurity measures, and providing access to COVID vaccines for schoolchildren and teachers. “The Honduran government must ensure that every municipality and village has these three things in place before in-person classes resume,” said Espinal.
Health Minister Alba Consuelo Flores tweeted on December 18, 2021 that she had signed a contract with the Pfizer pharmaceutical company to purchase two million pediatric vaccine doses, which will “guarantee” a return to in-person classes. It was later announced that these vaccines would arrive at the end of January.
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Ministry of Health data through November 2021 for the country’s main health regions indicates that 28,924 teachers have received a first dose, 26,798 are fully vaccinated, and only 20 teachers have received booster shots. The teachers’ pension fund (Instituto Nacional de Previsión del Magisterio – INPREMA) reports 65,715 teachers in active service.
Daniel Sponda says that during the first week of February, school inspections and a nationwide school cleaning day must be conducted, student enrollment should be completed, and teacher vaccination data should be collected. “This data will inform us if schools can return to in-person classes. A number of people have been vaccinated, but we need to know their locations,” he said.
Sponda also recommends “staggered school openings.” He said, “Some schools will open with students in classrooms, while others will continue holding online classes [since some haven’t been vaccinated]. We must be very clear that learning will either take place in person or online. There is no other alternative.”
The failure of virtual learning
Although classes have been held online since 2020, virtual learning in Honduras has not been successful. “UNICEF data reveals that one third of the region’s children and adolescents still do not receive quality distance education. Learning methods that use the Internet, television, radio, smartphones and SMS [text messages] require access to technology that is not available in all homes,” stated UNICEF’s Education on Hold report.
According to the July 2021 Permanent Multipurpose Household Survey conducted by the National Institute of Statistics, 98.9% of Honduran households have access to a mobile phone, while only 16.8% have access to a computer. The survey also indicates that 70.6% of people with Internet access reside in urban areas, and 29.4% in rural areas.
The Honduran Social Fund for Foreign Debt and Development (Fondo Social de Deuda Externa y Desarrollo de Honduras – FOSDEH) reports that many students dropped out of school due to fears about personal security and the lack of economic opportunities, which often drive entire families to emigrate. In this regard, UNICEF says, “Those most affected are vulnerable children and adolescents, such as girls, indigenous children, children with disabilities, refugees and migrants, and children living in rural areas.”
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Héctor Espinal estimates that 2.8 million children ranging from pre-primary through the tenth grade have been left behind by the country’s education system. Tomás Andino, a social researcher on children and youth rights, youth violence and public policies, says that this exclusion is a social consequence of online classes. “The education system has a problem. Holding online classes over the Internet excludes many children who have no Internet access, and also forces parents to spend money they don’t have to buy Internet service so their children can attend online classes.”
Andino told Contracorriente that missing classes can have developmental impacts since children acquire certain skills and abilities at specific ages, and if they miss that age window, learning and relationship problems can arise later in life. Confinement and isolation can also hinder a child’s socialization and the development of a healthy self-image. Andino also believes that these circumstances expose children to abuse and mistreatment.
According to the Center for Women’s Rights (Centro de Derechos de Mujeres – CDM), the Honduran National Emergency System  recorded 38,988 reports of domestic violence and 51,053 reports of intra-family violence as of October 31, 2021.
Andino believes that the decision to resume in-person classes or continue with online classes should take into account all the risks and impacts, since both options have adverse effects, some more serious than others, “Holding in-person classes under the current conditions with unvaccinated children, teachers and parents is risky because schools would become major COVID spreaders, intensifying the pandemic.”
Andino believes that with the right strategy, the problem can be addressed in stages. But for that to happen, Xiomara Castro’s new government will have to take a genuine interest in the problem. “Not like the outgoing government that failed to meet any of its commitments. That was a disaster.”