Rio is putting on the Olympics but it can’t pay to upkeep its schools

Young and restless in Brazil.
Young and restless in Brazil.
Image: Reuters/Sergio Moraes
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Rio de Janeiro’s gleaming Olympic installations are nearly finished ahead of the games in August. Meanwhile, at the state’s schools roofs are leaking, lights are broken and there are no water fountains or air conditioning to offset Rio’s oppressive heat, students say.

In protest for the lousy conditions, they have taken over dozens of schools. The latest count from state education officials puts the number of occupied schools at 67 (link in Portuguese), while protestors claim it’s 76, as shown on this crowdsourced Google map. That’s more than 70,000 students (link in Portuguese) out of class in the middle of the school year, according to media reports.

The occupied schools represent a small percentage of state’s 1,000-plus schools, but are indicative of the growing sense of unrest in Rio as it prepares to be in the world’s spotlight.

Collapsing oil prices and the grim state of the Brazilian economy have upended the state’s finances. The state has said it can’t afford to pay pensions to its retirees, and has delayed workers’ salaries, prompting thousands of them to strike last month. The state’s hematology institute, which supplies donated blood to some 200 public hospitals, had to reduce its collection hours and shut down (Portuguese) for a day in April because the majority of its administrative staff had not received pay in more than two months. In the words of a Rio official advocating for federal debt relief at the Supreme Court last month, the state is “nearing a social collapse.”

The government’s shortcomings are particularly offensive to cariocas in light of the billions of dollars (Portuguese) Brazil is spending to put on the Olympics.

Students started occupying schools (Portuguese) in March in support of striking teachers (Portuguese), and the movement quickly spread. They say conditions at schools, which were already bad, are getting worse due to cutbacks in the education budget.

On Monday (May 2), state education officials said they would provide 15,000 reais (around $4,000) to each school for maintenance and repairs (Portuguese).  They also declared the occupied schools on vacation so students don’t loose any more class time. The students will have to make up for the time later, when the schools that haven’t been occupied are on holiday. That is, if officials  are able to convince the occupiers to go home.