Budget Cuts Threaten Access to Virtual Education

The pandemic has made digital access critically important. But a program that provides students with computers is increasingly unable to meet the need.

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Budget Cuts Threaten Access to Virtual Education

Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

Michele Sabrina Hinojosa, 16, uses a laptop that the school system gave her younger sister five years ago. It was broken for much of the 2020 school year.

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BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA — Romina Cejas, an unemployed housekeeper and babysitter, faced a bitter choice last year: buy internet data so that her children could take virtual classes – or feed the family.

“We had to start going to a food pantry because we couldn’t afford to pay for the internet and continue buying food,” says Cejas, 39.

In March 2020, after the coronavirus pandemic forced Argentina to resort to remote schooling nationwide, Cejas’ son, Axel Pedernera, and his two older siblings took turns using the family’s two cellphones.

They have no laptop or Wi-Fi in their home, and buying data is expensive. Since April 2020, Cejas has sought help from a Buenos Aires Ministry of Education program that assists students with computers and internet service. She says she received no response.

“I was hoping they would give me the computer so I could do my assignments,” says Axel, 15. “It was kind of disappointing. Now, I don’t think I’ll pass.”

The program, Plan S@rmiento BA, was designed to broaden digital access for teachers and students. But this year, the Buenos Aires government gutted funding for the initiative.

As classes resumed in March with both in-person and virtual learning, teachers and parents worried that the hollowed-out budget would only deepen the digital divide between the city’s most privileged public school students and its poorest.

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Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

Michele Sabrina Hinojosa and her sister, Rocío Romero, used a cellphone to do school assignments during part of the 2020 school year.

Adjusting for inflation, the Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia (Civil Association for Equality and Justice), a human rights advocacy organization, says the budget for Plan S@rmiento BA has plummeted by 48% since 2019.

The association says 372 million Argentine pesos (about $4 million) were transferred from the Plan S@rmiento BA budget to private education at the end of 2020, which the government denies.

“The cuts to the Plan S@rmiento are very negative,” says Amanda Martín, union secretary of the Asociación Docente Ademys (Association of Secondary and Higher Education Teachers). “On the contrary, they should allocate more funds to it. There should be a massive program for the distribution of devices. Those who were left out were the poorest students.”

Created in 2011, Plan S@rmiento BA at first distributed a computer to each public school student and teacher. They could take the laptops home and had access to them even during school vacations.

That changed in 2018, when pupils no longer got their own computer. They could use laptops only in groups at school.

In May 2020, the Subsecretaría de Tecnología Educativa y Sustentabilidad (Undersecretariat of Educational Technology and Sustainability) allowed schools to lend equipment from Plan S@rmiento BA to students in socioeconomically vulnerable situations who didn’t have other devices.

According to the Buenos Aires Ministry of Education, students received 31,298 computers in 2020. But the Civil Association for Equality and Justice says that in a system with 712,640 learners, more than 68,000 students still didn’t have access to a computer.

Then there are students like Michele Sabrina Hinojosa, who has asthma and in 2020 came down with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Face-to-face classes pose a serious health risk for her.

Hinojosa, 16, has access to her younger sister’s laptop, which the family received through Plan S@rmiento BA five years ago. Their mother, Patricia Romero, works in a soup kitchen and as a maintenance worker in Barrio 20, a neighborhood in Buenos Aires. The family rents a room with a single small window and a table that serves as a counter, dining table and desk.

“I was hoping they would give me the computer so I could do my assignments. It was kind of disappointing. Now, I don’t think I’ll pass."15-year-old student

The house where they rent the room gets almost no cellphone signal. Romero must buy internet data, which she can barely afford.

“We have to recharge 300 to 400 pesos [$3.25 to $4.33] each day in order to do the classes,” Romero says. “I’ve spent all my savings on photocopies and the internet.”

Bernardo Pérez Etchegoyen, who teaches at Axel’s middle school, says students with no connectivity or access to a computer lose at least 10 hours of class time per week.

The Civil Association for Equality and Justice has sued the Buenos Aires government, hoping to force the government to provide internet service and devices for students, like Hinojosa, who cannot attend classes in person.

Pérez Etchegoyen notes, for example, that only 10% of the students in his school opted for face-to-face learning.

Officials from Buenos Aires’ Ministry of Education declined to be interviewed. But in response to a Civil Association for Equality and Justice information request, the Ministry of Finance and Treasury reported that the pandemic drastically reduced the city’s tax collection, and that the federal government also reduced the funds set aside for the capital, which forced budget cuts.

In its letter to the organization in March, the ministry also said that “372 million [pesos] belonging to the Sarmiento Plan were reallocated to another budget item of the Ministry of Education, corresponding to the payment of teachers’ salaries.”

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Lucila Pellettieri, GPJ Argentina

Michele Sabrina Hinojosa, left, checks homework done by her sister, Rocío Romero, 13, on Rocío’s computer.

In early May, Argentina President Alberto Fernández announced a nationwide plan, known as Juana Manso, to give 633,000 laptops this year to high school students who had lost contact with their schools. Argentina will also extend its fiber optic networks to improve internet access throughout the country, Fernández said.

“Although the Juana Manso Federal Plan is a great step forward, it is clear that this educational and connectivity policy must be maintained over time and seek to reach all children,” says Francisco Rodríguez, who specializes in children’s issues for the Civil Association for Equality and Justice.

Axel’s family lives in an apartment in southeast Buenos Aires’ lively La Boca neighborhood, a football-crazed community known for colorful buildings, tango dancing, and pockets of high crime. Because of the crime, internet service providers avoid the area, Cejas says.

Axel and his two siblings – ages 19 and 17 – muddled along using the two cellphones. He says it was hard for him to type longer assignments with a cellphone, so he went to his grandmother’s house on nights when she wasn’t using her computer for work.

He has had five or six assignments a week, and each took up to three hours. His brother, Santiago Pedernera, had technical school assignments that took even longer.

Cejas wants her children to receive at least one computer through Juana Manso. “I hope they get them soon because my kids work with cellphones and it gets complicated,” she says.

Lucila Pellettieri is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Translation Note

Shannon Kirby, GPJ, translated this story from Spanish.