(above) Claudia Bustillos 17, takes online classes at home as her mother Maria Elena works at a computer amidst the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in La Paz, Bolivia, September 1, 2020. Picture taken September 1, 2020. REUTERS/David Mercado


Virtual schooling in pandemic sharpens divide for Bolivia's poor


LA PAZ (Reuters) - For Sergio Meruvia, a 15-year-old student in Bolivia, staying up to date with school means selling hand sanitizer on the street to help pay for the expensive internet services his family now needs to continue his classes.

Meruvia is one of 3 million students enrolled in virtual classes in the South American nation, according to UNESCO data, as schools stay closed for the year due to the coronavirus pandemic. This dependence on pricey, yet often unreliable, internet services means families living in poverty have an even bigger financial burden to maintain their children’s education.

The new era of virtual learning shines a spotlight on the deep disparity between Bolivia’s rich and poor. Only about 40% of Bolivians - and only 3% in rural areas- have internet access, according to data by Bolivia’s telecoms authority.

Bolivia is considered one of the most dire countries in the region for internet access in households with children, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), which also names El Salvador, Paraguay and Peru.

“It is very different,” said Meruvia, who attends a public school in a poor neighborhood in La Paz, the capital. “Some teachers cannot express themselves well because they do not have good internet or some who are older do not know how to handle their cell phones.”

Patricia Kattan, whose two daughters are enrolled in private school, had to purchase several expensive pieces of equipment to keep up with the demands of virtual learning.

“We had to invest in an extra computer with a webcam and headphones for each because we’re in an apartment and each one needs their own desk and privacy in order have good use of the classes,” Kattan said.

Bridging the digital divide has been a topic of debate among lawmakers since schools were ordered to remain closed.

“Education cannot be closed down, so mechanisms must immediately be activated for virtual classes and for the government to comply with its constitutional mandate to guarantee the right to education,” Víctor Ramírez, a senator from the MAS political party, told Reuters.

Reporting by Reuters TV; writing by Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Leslie Adler