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article imageAs the virus deepens Haiti's schooling gap, some fight back

By Amelie BARON (AFP)     Aug 8, 2020 in World

When Haiti's pandemic-shuttered schools re-open for classes on Monday, the growing chasm between the country's rich and poor students will be on painfully clear display.

The wealthiest have broad campuses ready for social distancing and programs that continued online despite the virus, while some of the poorest don't even have running water for students to scrub their hands.

However, between those extremes are a small number of educators with a vision for a better system that they are trying to build with or without government help.

At the wealthy end of the spectrum are the 12th-year students at Saint-Louis de Gonzague school, all in neat suits and ties, who primped to look their best for the traditional photo in the school's chapel.

The Catholic institution in central Port-au-Prince has a spacious 13-hectare (33-acre) campus, with a stadium, tennis courts and plenty of room for social distancing.

The pressure on the 2,000 young men at the 130-year-old school was further eased because teachers were able to continue their instruction during the pandemic.

"We managed to finish the year: evaluations were done every Friday online," said Brother Valmyr-Jacques Dabel, school principal.

Only 12th-year students and final-year primary students, who are preparing for state exams in October, will have class in August.

Classes resume in full on September 7 to start the 2020-2021 school year, two months ahead of the government's calendar.

Yet, only five kilometers (three miles) down the road, reality at the Tabarre public school is far starker.

- Three computers, no power -

Lucien Jean-Francois  principal of the public Tabarre school in Port-au-Prince  shows the school&apo...
Lucien Jean-Francois, principal of the public Tabarre school in Port-au-Prince, shows the school's generator; a part was stolen, so water can only be pumped by hand at a time when frequent washing is being urged to stem the coronavirus's spread
Pierre Michel Jean, AFP/File

Arrayed around a small courtyard, five of the school's 13 classrooms are separated only by thin plywood walls.

A low outer wall built "temporarily" after the devastating 2010 earthquake offers little protection from pounding rain or harsh sun. The used furniture's blue paint, characteristic of UNICEF donations, is in desperate need of a new coat.

"If we look at the size of a classroom, we can squeeze in 60 children, but with distancing rules it can barely hold 20," said principal Lucien Jean-Francois, standing before the aging establishment.

Beginning Monday, students in each class will be divided into two groups and alternate in-person attendance, coming to school two or three days a week -- reducing each child's instruction time.

But these obstacles to learning don't trouble Jean-Francois as much as keeping his young charges safe during the pandemic.

International relief groups have built a toilet block but there is a problem: "There is no water in these restrooms," the principal says, shaking his head, "because the pump is unusable."

While health authorities want people to wash their hands regularly to stem the spread of COVID-19, this school, with its 1,600 students, has precisely one manually operated pump.

One pump -- and three computers, donated by a Haitian politician.

"We are connected to the electric grid, but the utility never supplies power," Jean-Francois said.

"Some professors don't even know how to turn on a computer. So we'll have to see," he added with a sigh.

"Since March, the students have not had class. Working online? That's for the church schools, for the parents who have the means and can give their children computer equipment. Here we cannot."

- Leaving no child offline -

A worker at the Lycee Petion-Ville in Port-au-Prince cleans an office as schools across Haiti prepar...
A worker at the Lycee Petion-Ville in Port-au-Prince cleans an office as schools across Haiti prepare to reopen
Pierre Michel Jean, AFP/File

However these extremes have given rise to teachers and establishments with a vision of a quality education for all.

Catts Pressoir middle school, which recruits students based on test scores and not wealth, integrates robotics and computer programming into its curriculum. They have big plans.

"We are going to seek financing to equip schools in the most remote areas with solar energy, and we're fighting with the internet providers to offer preferential rates to schools," said principal Guy Etienne.

"Our dream is to have the cities connected so that a course can be taught at Catts Pressoir but thousands of students across the country can take it," said Etienne.

For even when COVID-19 forced the physical closure of his establishment, learning continued.

Guy Etienne (R)  principal of the Catts Pressoir middle school in Port-au-Prince  demonstrates the H...
Guy Etienne (R), principal of the Catts Pressoir middle school in Port-au-Prince, demonstrates the Haiti school's internet platform, along with his son, Guy Philippe Etienne, who teaches robotics at the tech-focused school
Pierre Michel Jean, AFP/File

Teachers turned to a digital platform available on computers or via a smartphone app, to broadcast videos of classes and administer tests.

"We cannot wait for the government to make things happen," he said. "The development of our country is up to us."

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