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BOCA DE UCHIRE, Venezuela -- Hundreds of children filed into their school courtyard to hear a Catholic bishop lead prayers for their education.

"We pray for the youths who are on the streets and can't come to school," said Bishop Jorge Quintero, addressing the Augusto D'Aubeterre Lyceum school in the beach town of Boca de Uchire on a steamy morning in October. "There are a lot of them."

By the end of the 15-minute ceremony, five children had fainted and two of them were whisked away in an ambulance.

The faintings at the primary school have become a regular occurrence because so many students go to class without eating breakfast, or dinner the night before. In other schools, children want to know if there is any food before they decide whether to go at all.

"You can't educate skeletal and hungry people," said Maira Marin, a teacher and union leader in Boca de Uchire.

Venezuela's devastating six-year economic crisis is hollowing out the school system -- once the pride of the oil-rich nation and, for decades, an engine that made the country one of the most upwardly mobile in the region. These schools in the past provided children even in remote areas with a solid shot at the country's best universities, which in turn opened doors to top U.S. schools and a place among Venezuela's elite.

Hunger is just one of the many problems chipping away at them now. Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country in recent years, depleting the ranks of students and teachers alike. Many of the educators who remain have been driven from the profession, their wages made nearly worthless by years of relentless hyperinflation. In some places, barely 100 students show up at schools that once taught thousands.

The collapse of the education system in Venezuela is not only condemning an entire generation to poverty, but risks setting the country's development back decades and severely stunting its growth potential, experts and teachers say.

"An entire generation is being left behind," said Luis Bravo, an education researcher at the Central University of Venezuela in Caracas. "Today's education system doesn't allow children to become meaningful members of society."

The government stopped publishing education statistics in 2014. But visits to more than a dozen schools in five Venezuelan states and interviews with dozens of teachers and parents indicate that attendance has plummeted this year.

Many schools are shuttering in the once-wealthy nation as malnourished children and teachers who earn almost nothing abandon classrooms to scratch out a living on the streets or flee abroad.

Students began skipping school in Venezuela shortly after President Nicolas Maduro gained power in 2013. A fall in the price of the country's main export, crude oil, combined with Maduro's ill-timed effort to double down on price and currency controls sent the economy into a recession from which it has not yet emerged.

Some Venezuelan children are staying home because many schools have stopped providing meals or because their parents can no longer afford uniforms, school supplies or bus fares. Others have joined parents in one of the world's biggest displacement crises: About 4 million Venezuelans have fled the country since 2015, according to the United Nations.

Thousands of the country's 550,000 teachers did not show up for classes when schools reopened in September, according to the national teachers union, ditching their $8-a-month wages to try their luck abroad or in Venezuela's booming illegal gold mines.

To keep schools going, the remaining teachers often teach all of the subjects or combine different school years in one classroom. Nearly all of the one dozen schools visited have slashed working hours; some open for only a day or two a week.

To boost the ranks of teachers, Maduro in August promised to send thousands of the ruling party's young members to the classrooms. Education experts say few of these untrained activists will add any pedagogical value or even make it to schools.

A Section on 12/01/2019

Print Headline: Hunger follows Venezuela kids to school

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