Virtual Education in the Andes
The following blog chronicles the recent efforts of the Willka T’ika Children’s Fund (WTCF) to support local (virtual) education at Paru Paru Primary School in the mountains above P’isaq.
July 20th: The Pressing Need
When the roads opened after several months of closure due to Peru’s State of Emergency, I traveled to the mountain community of Paru Paru to spend the day with the school’s principal, Dionisio. We reviewed their infrastructure, technology, and nutrition needs for the school. After meeting with him and other community leaders, we agreed that the most pressing need was to help each student afford and access a basic cell phone plan so that s/he can complete homework assignments safely from home, using Whatsapp. With no set schedule on the horizon for the start of in-person schooling, WhatsApp text messaging service has become a lifeline for access to education for Peru’s remote communities. Dionisio showed me the lessons that he and the other 5 teachers send the students each day via WhatsApp. Students then send back a photo of the completed assignments. Dionisio explained that many students don’t have access to a phone and are only able to do assignments a couple days a week when they are able to share a family member’s phone. He emphasized how important it is for them to be able to do assignments each day. We then drove to the cell phone store and found the most basic plan for around $10/month. If we were to fund each of the school’s 80 students, we could guarantee daily instruction for $800/month. Assuming a 9 month school year, that would cost $7200 for the year.
August 5: The Call to Action
This week we announced our goal to empower 80 isolated students with cell phone plans so they can continue to study remotely while schools are closed due to COVID. For extra inspiration, we included a video of Yovana, one of our WTCF students who recently graduated and now receives virtual education from the University of Cusco. Thanks to those who kindly contributed to our “Empower Education“ newsletter, we immediately received $3832 in donations putting us more than half way toward our goal! On behalf of Carol Cumes and the children and teachers of Paru Paru school, we are so grateful! Thanks to these donations, we will be able to support 6 grades of Primary School students.
August 18: A Wonderful Response
After a second newsletter we were able to reach our goal of $7200! We are so grateful to our extended community for their generous support. I immediately called Dionisio with the good news and we set up a meeting with the parents of all the students of Paru Paru. Dionisio and I agreed that we would purchase cell phone plans for each family for one month at a time — the renewal of each plan would be contingent on each student’s doing the daily assignments. We even drafted a contract in Spanish for each family to sign. Although many families live far away from the school and haven’t returned since the Quarantine began in March, Dionisio was able to schedule a day when they would all come to the school to pick up their government-issued food staples. This would be a perfect time to deliver the cell phone plans. We agreed to bring a Bitel rep with us, since this was the network which has the best coverage at this high altitude community.
August 29: Extending a Lifeline of Virtual Education
After a two hour drive, we arrived at Paru Paru at 8AM. We brought 100 face masks and held our gathering outside to ensure everyone’s safety. One by one, each family emerged and patiently waited for their first phone plan. Since most of the parents are illiterate, Dionisio read the contract aloud to them, emphasizing that the phone plan was to be prioritized for the child’s schoolwork, and not for entertainment.
I noticed that some of the mothers could not even sign their name and Livio simply colored their thumb with pen ink and pushed it down on the paper in lieu of a signature. After each person, he sprayed their hands with alcohol. For those who purchased phone accessories, Elvis the Bitel rep even sprayed down their bills. With infection rates still spreading in Peru, everyone was being extremely careful.
Elvis patiently registered each family and replaced their “pre-paid” chips with the new data plan. He also had to configure each phone to make sure it was working and then download Whatsapp for the parents. Our assumption was that most of kids would already know how to use Whatsapp. If not, Elvis offered to come back to the school and do a training session. The few families that didn’t own a phone were encouraged to wait until the end of the day so that we could find a phone for them to use. Only one father was left without a phone and we drove him back to Pisaq with us so we could buy him a basic phone. Knowing that he probably did not even have a few soles to get public transportation back to Paru Paru, I gave him S/10. He was overjoyed both with the phone and with the fact that he wouldn’t have to walk hours back up the mountain. Tonight he would return home late, but he would be returning with a lifeline for his young daughter’s virtual (but very real) education.