Local Venezuelan students struggle without internet; City says short-term drop in tram ridership was expected; Child malnutrition soars during pandemic

Sep 28, 2020 | 18 comments

As many as a thousand Venezuelan children enrolled in Cuenca public schools struggle to keep up in online classes due to a lack of computers and internet access. “Many of the children are using cell phones to log into their sessions and this puts them at an extreme disadvantage with students with laptops and tablets and a dedicated internet connection,” says Freddy Castro, regional director of the Ministry of Education. “In many cases, maybe the majority, the parents are in financial distress and must purchase cell phone minutes for their children to go online.”

Tram ridership has declined since commercial service began last Tuesday. (El Mercurio)

In some cases, Castro says the ministry is dispatching teachers to student homes to provide personal instruction while, in others, it is providing tablets on a loan basis. The situation is made difficult, he says, by the poverty of refugee families. “Many of them are forced to move frequently and do not have appropriate space for the children to study. or to establish internet accounts.”

The Catholic church and several private charities are assisting in the purchase of tablets as well as in efforts to provide central study locations with internet connections. “The assistance is a very welcome but we must coordinate plans with the private groups and also communicate with the refugee families.”

According the interior ministry, there are about 400,000 Venezuelans living in Ecuador with an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 in Cuenca.

Officials defend drop in tram ridership
According to Cuenca Mayor Pedro Palacios, the reduction in tram ridership since commercial service began last week was expected. “We predicted this and have explained since we began the free service in May that there would be a drop in the numbers when commercial service began and until we establish full integration with the bus system, which will require an additional 60 days,” he said. “We believe the integration will be fully functional in early December.”

Palacios was responding to a rash of social media and radio complaints about low tram ridership. “There will always be complaints but these will go away in a few months,” he said.

Tram director Carolina Ormaza says that confusion about the purchase and use of the payment card is one of the reasons for the decline in users. “Unlike the bus cards, tram cards can only be purchased in five locations,” she says. “Also confusing for some passengers is the fact that there are currently separate cards for buses and the tram. Some people are attempting to use their bus cards and these are not recognized by the tram system readers.”

Metro Tenerife, the Spanish company providing technical and management services for the tram, agrees that the lower ridership numbers are temporary, the result of the new payment system and the delay in bus integration. “All tram systems begin slowly and the current numbers in Cuenca are very close to what we expected,” Metro said in a Saturday statement. “Typically, it takes two to three years to reach maximum ridership with tram systems and here we face the additional challenge that coordination with the buses has yet to be achieved. Once that is accomplished, there will be a surge in ridership.”

The statement continued: “Beyond these difficulties, we are dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, which depresses the number of system users.”

Ormaza adds that a single-user card for both buses and the tram, available in December or January, will boost ridership.

Child malnutrition plagues some areas
Vice President María Alejandra Muñoz says Ecuador has one of the highest levels of malnutrition for children up to five years old. “The government is working with several international organizations to find solutions but this is difficult due to the health emergency,” she says. According to the vice president, the areas with the worst cases of malnutrition are in Santa Elena, Bolivar and Chimborazo provinces, concentrated in the communities of La Libertad, Guamote, Guaranda, Taisha and Arajuno.

According to the government, the public-private project currently underway hopes to provide direct assistance to 30,646 children. “The economic impact of the coronavirus has put Ecuador 10 years behind in efforts to combat poverty, with malnutrition among the young being the most urgent issue,” Muñoz says.

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