Pandemic Undermines Education, Worsening Inequality for Students from Rio’s Urban Periphery

Articulação Juventude Popular nas Universidades: Photo / Casa Fluminense

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This is our latest article on the new coronavirus as it impacts Rio de Janeiro’s favelas.

The new coronavirus pandemic has made the inequality gap that exists in the daily life of Brazilians glaringly visible. The policies of social distancing and physical isolation—the main methods for containing the virus—have drastically affected the income of the poorest families. For many, continuing to work, even in the face of health risks, is a matter of survival. Children from these families, who are mostly students in the public school system, are also affected. School closures threaten dreams for the future and widen the chasm that separates peripheral students from university admission.

Since physical isolation was decreed in the state of Rio de Janeiro in the second week of March, Juliana Avelar, 19, has not had classes. Avelar is enrolled in a technical high school course at the Federal Institute of Rio de Janeiro (IFRJ), in Nilópolis, in the Baixada Fluminense. In addition to her regular classes, she is also enrolled in a college entrance examination preparatory course in Nova Iguaçu, the same municipality where she lives. Without a computer or Wi-Fi at home, maintaining a study routine is virtually impossible. “It is very difficult to study right now without the right environment and with no equipment. Like me, many students are going through the same difficulty,” says Avelar.

In Rio’s Metropolitan Region, 32% of students do not have a computer at home. Of this group, the majority, 75%, are students in the public school system, according to a study undertaken by Casa Fluminense, based on microdata from the 2018 Enem (Brazil’s college entrance exam) gathered from test registration information. The numbers are even worse among the students of the College Entrance Examination Prep Course for Black and Underprivileged (PVNC) in Vila Operária, where Avelar is studying. Seven of every ten students do not have a computer at home. Like Avelar, most use their cell phones to study.

Learning at home: Juliana Avelar

More than 60km away from Nova Iguaçu, in the neighborhood of Jardim Catarina, in the municipality of São Gonçalo, the situation is similar. Without a computer at home, 17-year-old Lorrayne Muniz must rely on her cell phone to access school content. Activities at Trasilbo Filgueiras State High School have been carried out remotely since the beginning of April: “There are no video lessons or videoconferences. What they do is upload materials to the platform and wait for us to respond on the day that [the teachers] determine. They make corrections, write a comment on the exercise and that is it. Nothing like an actual class,” explains Muniz.

According to Muniz, virtual teaching is not the solution for the current moment. She says that studying at home, it is difficult to establish a routine that effectively separates study from domestic chores and family concerns. “Even if we are home, there are many other things to do, there is a lot going on, and our minds are full. I was having a hard time getting all of my schoolwork done, so I had to choose between passing my school year and keeping up with the college entrance exam prep course. I ended up letting the prep course go,” explains Muniz.

Worries over family finances, the need to help with housework or care for a family member, the difficulty of accessing the Internet, and the lack of computer access are just a few of the layers of exclusion experienced by peripheral students. These issues have always existed, but they have intensified during the pandemia, as explained by Yasmin Monteiro, coordinator of Casa Fluminense’s popular youth in universities network. “These are students who are watching Covid-19 move into their neighborhoods in an extremely devastating fashion. They are getting sick themselves, their families are getting sick, and the news of deaths around them is much more common than for a student who lives in a middle-class neighborhood, for example.”

According to Monteiro, this same group also experiences the worst economic impacts of social isolation: “If the number of public school students who also worked was already very high before the pandemic, today, despite isolation measures, the number of students who are having to bend over backwards, along with their families, to keep food on the table and a full pantry, is much higher.”

“Money has always been a concern around here,” says Renam Xavier, 19, resident of the Cesarão community in Santa Cruz, in Rio’s West Zone. The pandemic, however, has further aggravated the situation. In addition to losing informal work as a waiter, Xavier has encountered a bleak job market. He is also worried about his mother, who works as a cleaner and whose income has been severely affected. Emergency aid has been instrumental in paying the bills and ensuring food.

Xavier finished high school last year, but he is still trying to get a spot at a public university. The young man, who intends to study History, has been studying on his own through a virtual platform. The course is fee-based, but was made available to him free of charge through his community’s college entrance examination prep course. As for the course activities themselves, which have been shared via WhatsApp, Xavier has not been able to follow up due to problems with his cell phone.

Learning at home: Lorrayne Muniz

Juggling work and study has been a reality for 19-year-old Avelar from a very young age. With the arrival of the pandemic, there has been a dramatic decrease in business at the open-air market where she works. Earning less, she has had to increase her working days from one to four a week. In addition to being the person responsible for finances at home, she also needs to do the housework and take care of her mother, who has mental health issues. For Avelar, the advance of Covid-19 in the state is a cause for concern. “I am afraid for financial reasons. We do not know when this will end and whether I will be able to keep paying bills on time. What happens if I get sick? What will happen to my home? I am the one who does everything. What would happen?” she asks.

At Muniz’s house in Jardim Catarina, the biggest concern is rent. Muniz’s parents are self-employed—her mother is a manicurist and her father a mechanic—and they have experienced a significant drop in income. Her parents are financially responsible for the six people that live in their home. Even with the isolation decree, they have had to continue working. To date, the neighborhood where they live had recorded the highest number of Covid-19 cases in São Gonçalo. According to official data from the Municipal Health Department, there were at least 111 confirmed cases as of June 5. Considering widespread underreporting, the true number of cases could be up to 15 times higher.

In addition to the spread of the virus, violence is again becoming a cause for concern. According to Muniz, police operations in Jardim Catarina had been frequent, but decreased at the beginning of the pandemic. They resumed in the last weeks, however: “On May 20, there was an operation further into [Jardim] Catarina, and, on the 21st, here closer to my house, police came with a helicopter. There have been raids following João Pedro’s death.” On May 18, João Pedro Matos Pinto, 14, mentioned by Muniz, was executed by police inside his aunt’s home in Complexo do Salgueiro, a community near Jardim Catarina.

“Isolation has undoubtedly deepened the inequalities that already existed between public and private school students,” argues Monteiro, whose Popular Youth in Universities network brings together eight college entrance exam prep courses in communities of the Metropolitan Region of Rio. “We talked about the health dimension, the economic dimension and we are adding a third dimension, public safety, which directly impacts the mental health of these students. It impacts their ability to dedicate themselves fully to an activity that requires concentration, calm, and attention,” explains Monteiro.

Postponement of the Enem

In this context, the postponement of the college entrance exam, the Enem, is seen as a small victory. The exam, scheduled to take place in November, was suspended by the Ministry of Education (MEC) on May 20 following strong public pressure. MEC has mentioned a postponement of 30 to 60 days which, in Monteiro’s view, would be “completely insufficient.” With face-to-face classes suspended for more than two months now, and with no return date scheduled, there is no basis for setting a new date. “Right now, most schools and college entrance examination prep courses in communities lack enough methodology, teachers, tools, or experience for us to consider that what we are doing is in fact distance education. It is not. It is more of a band-aid solution,” argues Monteiro.

A Doctoral student in anthropology at Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF), Monteiro also notes that public university classes are mostly suspended. This means that students who passed the 2019 Enem have not yet started university. If the situation is not normalized by the end of the year, there will be two groups of first years waiting to begin. In this scenario, she sees no reason for a push for the Enem to take place this year. “We need the Enem date to be suspended until we are able to resume face-to-face classes,” says Monteiro.

Without schools and community-based college entrance preparatory exam courses running normally, the equity of the exam is undermined and the disparity between the starting lines for public and private school students increases. Monteiro argues that education, and especially the Enem, are instruments of social justice, and, for this reason, it is fundamental that equal chances are minimally guaranteed to all students taking the exam. “Despite the social gaps, access to higher education is closely linked to a greater possibility of social mobility for these young people from the periphery who attended public schools,” she says.

Jaqueline Suarez is a journalist and master’s degree student at UFF. She is also an activist and independent documentary filmmaker. She lives in the favela of Fallet, in Santa Teresa, Central Rio.

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