Access to Education in Cuba, Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico: Review

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 62 (En Español)

Last Tuesday, September 7, 2021, the second panel called Access to Education within the online Conference on Access to Information: Latin America and the Caribbean (CAI:LAC) was held with presentations from speakers from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. The panel was made up of the journalist Carla Minet, Executive Director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, Professor Sergio Ángel Baquero, Coordinator of the Observatory of Academic Freedom, Cuba – Colombia and Mr. Vladimir Rozón, Coordinator, Dominican Political Observatory. The moderator of the discussion was Mrs. Loida García-Febo. 

The discussion generated sought to know the situation of access to information in the Caribbean, particularly in Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba, the challenges and problems of education, the impact of the pandemic on education and the specific proposals of each of the panelists to improve the educational situation in their countries.

The discussion began by discussing the situation of access to information in the Spanish-speaking Caribbean. As part of the panoramic picture expressed by the speakers, the journalist Minet highlighted that in Puerto Rico the most pressing issues of education, from a journalistic perspective, address four main elements. The first is the precariousness of the systems, infrastructure and administration of the public system. The second is the recurring trauma related to the way students have experienced education due to crises such as Hurricanes Irma and María, earthquakes that occurred in January 2020, COVID-19 and the dismantling of the public system with the sales and closure of public schools. As a result of this, many students have been placing themselves in other schools and on the other hand have had to pursue remote online education due to COVID 19. Thirdly, she mentioned corruption as a chronic problem of the political class and the Department of Public Education in Puerto Rico where the assignment of contracts does not necessarily respond to educational needs, but rather to cronyism and political favors. Finally, the governance problem is mentioned in terms of the lack of stability as a result of the continuous changes of Secretaries of Education in Puerto Rico in recent years. These consecutive changes make the system inefficient and difficult to respond to people’s needs. 

Access to Education (Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and Cuba)

For the reporter, COVID 19, emphasized the deficiencies of the public system and deepened its inequalities. A reflection of this is the lack of computers in students’ homes at the beginning of the pandemic, as well as the lack of access to the internet to follow their classes. Therefore in homes where more than one child needed to take classes at the same time, the lack of resources makes it difficult for parents to make decisions to provide the necessary data. This added to the lag in technological skills in parents and grandparents and the need to take care of children in their homes while having to stop attending their jobs. 

In the case of the Dominican Republic, Mr. Vladimir Rozón refers to historical data when investment in education began. It was not until 1957 that a law was created that addressed the challenges of the country’s educational problems. Despite the law, the lack of resources for education was still a general complaint. In 2012, 4% of the gross domestic product was applied to education and investments began in the construction of new educational establishments in different parts of the country to strengthen the structural issue in areas of difficult access.  

However, according to Rozón, the efforts have not been sufficient or well channeled. The overview of education in the Dominican Republic currently shows three critical elements: 

●    Learning problems and transmission of knowledge. This as results of the ISA tests given to students in the Dominican Republic where the worst results have been reflected at a general level. The data summarizes that the Dominican Republic obtained the last places in science, fourth position in reading and another area such as mathematics and Spanish. 

●    Academic deficiencies in teachers. In this area, a high percentage (more than 70%) of failures was reflected in the most recent academic measurement tests administered to teachers who offer classes in public schools. 

●    The lack of planning in educational investment taking into consideration that the funds allocated to the construction of schools was not the priority at the moment. In this case, it is evident that investment had to be made in strengthening the academic skills of the teaching staff and the learning of the students.

Mr. Rozón also made reference to the arrival of COVID 19, whose problems added to educational failures.

In Cuba, the panoramic picture of access to information, described by Professor Baquero, is based on three specific ideas:

  1. Cuba has been recognized worldwide in terms of coverage of higher education and in the elimination of illiteracy as a project of the revolution.
  2. Cuba has been recognized for the success of the quality of tertiary higher education and that of its professionals in its different areas. 
  3. Growth, in terms of budget and infrastructure, has deteriorated in tertiary, secondary and primary education.

Baquero also mentions the issue of school dropout in the country, reflected in data from the Observatory of Academic Freedom. These data indicate that for the year 2015 the highest dropout peak was reflected in children, while in 2019 the highest peak was in adolescents. In addition, they establish that tertiary education no longer has coverage similar to 2011 where enrollment was 80.9% and by 2019 it dropped to 41.4%.

Finally, he broke down the types of most recurrent incidents within the universities from 1959 to the present, these being harassment, unjustified and illegal dismissal and the denial of the right to education for political and ideological reasons.

The second intervention addressed the challenges and problems of education. In this regard, the speaker from the Dominican Republic highlighted the digital divide and social inequality, taking into consideration that the majority of public school students did not have equipment to take remote classes and did not have internet connection during the pandemic. Likewise, he mentioned the challenge of outdated learning and knowledge transmission models that require immediate action to improve students’ academic achievement. Finally, he criticized the teacher evaluation that is carried out by the evaluation bodies of the same ministry of education, creating a kind of scheme that does not allow a good evaluation of teachers. 

In the case of Cuba, one of the challenges that Baquero claims is the elimination of aspects related to ideological biases. This is because professors who are not practicing revolutionary politics must renounce being university professors or anything related to education. For this reason, the dogmas that lead to an ideological education must be eliminated. On the other hand, the issue of the low number of functioning school infrastructure, the migration of the most qualified due to lack of incentive to stay in classrooms and the high cost of connectivity were also pointed out as a challenges for education in Cuba. 

Regarding Puerto Rico, the journalist Minet points out the accelerated purchase of schools in 2019 that became a good business for investors and developers. Thus, the effectiveness of online platforms that have been integrated from COVID19 in the Department of Education is also questioned. Another challenge is the difficulty parents and grandparents of children face in accessing the Department of Education’s online platforms due to lack of technological skills. In general, Carla Minet mentions that many of the difficulties of education in Puerto Rico are not related to the lack of resources, but rather to the problem of governance, the administration of resources and the management of funds. 

Another question to the panel sought a description of the impact of the pandemic on an already fragile situation in the countries’ education. In Cuba, social distancing and the measures established by the government to prevent the issue of COVID 19 accentuated the problems that were already evident in education. One of them is connectivity and the other is access to devices for distance education. On the one hand, the cost of computers and internet access are very high for students and on the other hand the sanctions of the United States prevent the purchase of the devices. These factors have resulted in the youngest having to access classes from the television and despite the fact that the teachers stopped by the students’ houses to deliver and collect the assignments, this presented the dramatic result of the lost year and evident dropout . Another challenge is related to the social network as a form of internet connection for the youngest of the island. In this case, the only company that provides internet is the Cuban telecommunications company, whose costs are very high. 

The experiences of students in Puerto Rico, reported by Minet, have been very varied, with effects of uncertainty, insecurities and mental health situations. According to the journalist, there was an increase in cases of depression, anxiety and suicide in young people and minors on the island due to the pandemic. In addition, an academic lag was reflected that could not be identified and for which no solutions are presented. On the other hand, in Puerto Rico the departure of thousands of students from the public system has been reflected, in part due to the earthquakes that occurred in the south of the island. The departure of these students has generated great pressure on parents and grandparents for taking care of these children and also for having to face technologies that they are not familiar with.  

In the Dominican Republic, the pandemic has also had its effect. Some of Mr. Rozón’s remarks have been the lack of connectivity in many of the most remote sectors of the country; the lack of technological culture in parents, who did not know how to operate equipment to help their children, and in teachers who are not prepared to offer classes; and the lack of devices to take distance classes.

Based on all the above, the three speakers presented a concrete proposal to improve the educational situation in each of their countries. Mr. Vladimir Rozón understands it is necessary for the Dominican Republic to develop comprehensive and permanent education plans that are not interrupted by a new government. He also recommends the need to work with students and parents to reduce school dropouts and create broad and diverse learning environments in relation to students, their profiles, interests and skills. 

Professor Sergio Baquero believes in the elimination of stigmatized forms of education that include a single ideological conception of the party in Cuba. Likewise, he also recommends thinking about democratization by developing strategies that lead to the reduction of connectivity costs and the mechanism of access to devices for a better connection. Finally, he refers to the generation of new incentive devices for students to enter education and feel that they will have retribution. 

Clara Minet refers to the improvement in the process of providing data to the press on educational matters that are currently bureaucratic. Alternative information systems must be established to have information on school sites and teachers can take leadership in this regard. Another recommendation is to develop initiatives and projects to develop model schools, create educational systems that are more empathic with students and their disadvantaged realities, and finally incorporate digital, media literacy and critical media consumption initiatives. 

By Jeanette Lebrón

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