MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Now to Venezuela where due to a catastrophic economic meltdown, it's getting harder for children to get an education. Public school teachers are resigning in droves. Classes are being canceled, and many students skip school or drop out to go to work. Here's reporter John Otis.
JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: These students at a Caracas elementary school are some of the lucky ones. Their classroom has electricity and a teacher.
UNIDENTIFIED TEACHER: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: That's not always the case. Classes here are frequently called off due to nationwide power outages. Gasoline shortages have collapsed public transportation, making it harder for teachers to get to the school. That puts a bigger burden on parents like Karen Benini, the mother of a first grader.
KAREN BENINI: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Teachers miss so many classes that Benini says she often steps in to substitute even though she's not qualified.
BENINI: (Through interpreter) I'm not a teacher. I didn't study to be at teacher. I'm a graphic designer.
OTIS: Other teachers have quit. Some are among the 4 million Venezuelans who have fled the country amid hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine. Teachers who still show up for work often do so out of loyalty to their students. Among them is Maria Perez. She teaches geography at a K-12 in Ramo Verde, a hillside slum on the outskirts of Caracas.
MARIA PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: The Ramo Verde school used to have 12 teachers, but Perez says it's now down to four. As her wages shrink, she's also thinking of leaving.
You don't earn very much, no?
PEREZ: (Laughter) No.
OTIS: How much? Like in dollars, how much?
PEREZ: It's in one month, $5.
OTIS: That's nothing.
PEREZ: It's nothing.
OTIS: After school and on weekends, Perez sells food and cellphone accessories on the street to make ends meet. For all her struggles, she feels worse for her students, many of whom are malnourished. The school is supposed to provide midday snacks, but often there are no provisions in the cafeteria.
PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Perez says three of her students recently fainted in class, including one girl who hadn't eaten dinner the night before or breakfast that morning. In exchange for food, many of her students skip school to do odd jobs like hauling water. During power outages in Ramo Verde, water pumps don't work. So residents fill up buckets and containers at this mountainside spring. Instead of attending classes, some kids go door to door delivering spring water.
One example is 15-year-old Michael Villareal. He's just arrived home after trudging up a steep hill with a 5-gallon water jug on his shoulders.
MICHAEL VILLAREAL: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: Instead of charging bolivars, that badly devalued Venezuelan currency, Villareal says he accepts rice, pasta and flour for his labor.
(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)
OTIS: That helps keep food on the table for his parents, brothers and baby sister. But Villareal ends up missing a lot of school. The Venezuelan government refuses to publish dropout rates or numbers on student and teacher absenteeism. To make up for lost class time, officials extended the current school year which was supposed to finish in June to the end of July. But Nancy Hernandez, a national board member of the Venezuelan equivalent of the PTA, says it won't make much difference.
NANCY HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).
OTIS: She says, "we have determined that the 2018-2019 academic year has been lost." For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Caracas, Venezuela.