My name is Luiz Felipe Ramos, I am 18 years old, and I am from Vinhedo, São Paulo, Brazil.
I am passionate about education and economic development, and will be moving to Vancouver for university. Throughout my childhood, I experienced the inequality between private and public schools in the state of São Paulo. I have taught English at publicly funded institutions and built intimate relationships with the students. Most of the students--if not all--revealed worrisome experiences about what it was like attending a public school in the Brazilian education system. They complained about the poor infrastructure, the untrained professors, and the flawed curriculum.
Reading and researching more about the disparities in education in Brazil, I discovered that Vinhedo is not an exception: the student experience in public schools does not measure up to that provided by a private education. Due to the escalation of the Covid-19 crisis, this gap has only widened. I believe this matter is of the utmost importance, and that it should be addressed immediately.
Education in Brazil, pre-Covid
It is important to understand that the Brazilian education system already had problems before the pandemic. This is primarily because of the lack of investment in student development and the degree to which educational reform has been politicized.
In 2018, when President Bolsonaro was elected, he proposed absurd plans for education and claimed that previous ‘leftist’ administrations had attempted to indoctrinate students through the public school system. This allegation is completely false. Regardless, the main objective of the Ministry of Education remained “combating cultural-marxism in the public school system”. To address this supposed issue, Bolsonaro appointed the alt-right theologian Ricardo Vélez Rodríguez as Minister of Education, and then replaced him with the alt-right economist Abraham Weintraub. Both of these ministers share Bolsonaro’s extremist ideas. The ministry then refused to acknowledge the studies of Paulo Freire, Brazil’s most important scholar, and Bolsonaro called him “Energúmeno” (mad man). Bolsonaro’s administration then praised the ultraconservative, self-proclaimed philosopher Olavo de Carvalho. Bolsonaro’s wild educational agenda did not stop there: his administration then declared that it would fire teachers who were supposedly indoctrinating students with communist ideology (“Programa Escola Sem Partido”).
Instead of hiring extremist figures and spreading false rumors about his opponents, I believe Bolsonaro and his administration should’ve begun to address the inequities plaguing the Brazilian education system. It was in this chaotic storm of lies and ineffective leadership that the Covid-19 crisis broke out.
Inequality in Brazil’s education system in the era of Covid-19
In March, when Brazil closed all the schools, more than 44 million students had to be moved online. However, only 14% of public schools and 64% of private schools had access to the internet. Without a universal teaching platform, most schools could not hold remote lessons and had to suspend classes entirely. Naturally, the privately-funded schools that are able to allocate more resources to students quickly adapted to the situation, while the public schools suffered due to the lack of funding available for technology.
I felt this difference. My private high school seamlessly transitioned to classes online, while all public schools suspended classes in São Paulo, including the institutions where I teach English. It took me more than two months to find an alternative to in-person classes.
The disparity in the quality of education has also widened. Due to the absence of a standard online teaching methodology, schools had to develop their own online teaching approach. When there are no guidelines on how to teach a curriculum, schools with more resources to invest in specialized educators perform much better. As a result of these challenges and inequities, public schools were unable to provide high quality online education.
The transition to online learning here is worrisome not just because of the educational drawbacks, but because of how dependent certain demographics of Brazilian students are on being able to go to school. In Brazil, 60% of children live in poverty. More than ⅓ of these children are either homeless or live in unstable regions, lacking appropriate conditions to study and attend online classes. These at-risk children have to go to school because it is the only place where they are safe and able to escape their daily problems. In online classes, they are still vulnerable to these problems, which disrupt their progress in virtual lessons and jeopardize their ability to learn.
(Boogie, Sao Paulo)
The few policies that the Ministry of Education have proposed have failed to address these new issues. In the only Covid-19 protocol put forth by the Ministry, the Conselho Nacional da Educação (CNE) encouraged public schools to proceed with virtual teaching and use vacation time, weekends, holidays and other non-schooling hours to make up for lost time. This will not work. As a result of the unsafe conditions and the unfortunate quality of a public education, student drop-out rates will rise exponentially. To effectively address these issues, schools should promote informal activities using more inclusive platforms in order to continue teaching without overwhelming the students.
It feels as if the Ministry of Education doesn’t care about fixing the Brazilian education system. While students suffer because of the rocky transition to online learning, the Minister of Education, Abraham Weintraub, was engaging in several political scandals. He attacked governors and mayors for following the health recommendations of the World Health Organization (WHO), disrespected Brazilian democratic institutions, and posted racist comments on his twitter account. He was justifiably removed from office, but it took almost an entire month for the government to appoint the current minister, Milton Ribeiro. In the midst of the greatest crisis of the century, the Brazilian education system had no leader. This pandemic has exposed the current government’s shameful incompetence and indifference to the wellbeing of underprivileged students.
Although the federal government has failed to look out for vulnerable students in the era of Covid-19, some local authorities are doing their best to help them. For example, the state of Maranhão, located in Brazil’s northeast region, utilized radio and public television to broadcast public school lessons. This increased the attendance rate, as most students have access to these mediums. In addition, through a partnership with mobile operators, the state of São Paulo launched a free app for public school students to attend their online classes. Through the app, students can easily access their activities and organize their studies on their cell phones.
In my life, I have been doing my best to address inequality in the Brazilian public education system. I co-founded Social Via, a volunteer organization that provides English lessons for children in low-income areas. If you are interested in learning more about Social Via and joining us in our mission, follow us on instagram (@socialvia) and check out our website (www.socialvia.org).
Together we can fight the injustices in the Brazilian education system, and succeed where our government has failed us.