COVID-19 disrupted industries all over the world and education is no exception. School closures in Latin America linger, with some having started to partially open and alternating between in-person and remote learning in the past few months.
This situation diminishes the progress made in the last two decades in one of the globe’s more unequal regions to recede. Even with this progress, Latin America and the Caribbean faced a learning crisis before the pandemic. A greater focus on education in Latin America is long overdue. Structural issues are coming to light now more with the pandemic; however, they are not recent. Solutions should be tailored for each country since the region is not homogenous, even though many of these issues are common denominators.
According to the World Bank, learning poverty, the percentage of 10-year-olds that cannot read or understand simple text, was already high at 51 percent before the pandemic, in a region which also had the world’s widest inequity in student access to quality education. This is epitomized by Brazil, where learning poverty in the state of São Paulo was 27 percent, reaching 70 percent in the state of Maranhão. In addition, the gap between public and private education is significant since the resources available for each are not the same.
With at least 15 percent expected not to ever go back to school, the pandemic has deepened one of the region’s main challenges. And those who do return will have lost valuable months of education. Moreover, with schools closed, many children lost access to a relatively safe environment at a time when the deteriorated economic condition at home makes it a hard place to be. Some might have to endure increased stress, domestic violence and interrupted services that many children receive in schools, including meals for 10 million students in the region. These are clear examples of the dramatic impact of school closures on students’ physical, mental, and emotional health.
In addition, school closures reduce female labour participation and increase the gender wage gap. Those whose family income are lowest are the hardest hit as well as other vulnerable groups like ethnic minorities, and persons with disabilities. Studies suggest significant losses, particularly for the aforementioned groups. Importance of schools also stems from learning opportunities provided to children in poor households, eliminating one of their few options for escaping poverty.
Although the pandemic has taken an excruciating toll all over the world, by some measures Latin America has been hit harder and most importantly longer. For many children and youth in the region, schools are not simply the place where they learn. It symbolizes a place where they can still be children, something work may take from them if they decide or become obliged to enter the workforce.
The different degrees of access to digital education prompted most countries to implement different forms of remote learning which combined online methods with TV, radio, and the distribution of learning materials (e.g., Pakistan and Sierra Leone). However, the absence of teachers in the learning process is felt, and social skills that come with interaction, dwindle.
Moving forward, the digital divide needs to be addressed to provide connectivity to poor households, without losing sight of the in-person return as soon as the pandemic allows.
One first step is to recognize that despite efforts to implement a variety of multi-platform remote learning programs and initiatives there is a learning loss caused by school closures. Diagnosing the situation allows for more effective solutions. The multiple demands spurred by the pandemic are faced with scarce resources given that the crisis has also hit the already battered economies in most of those countries, making the creation of carefully tailored public policy an even more pressing issue.
As reported by the Inter-American Development Bank, a proper resource allocation has the potential to shrink the gap between students of different socio-economic levels, while the use of resources in areas proven to have worked, like investment in teachers, is key to recovery in the education realm.
Studies have suggested that schools are not major sites of contagion, but it is hard for countries in Latin America to make classrooms safe since they tend to be overcrowded. In keeping with the UNESCO, UNICEF, World Bank, and World Food Programme framework for reopening schools, “school reopenings must be safe and consistent with each country's overall COVID-19 health response, with all reasonable measures taken to protect students, staff, teachers, and their families.” What is necessary is readymade plans to implement as soon as a window of opportunity opens and maximize those instances, as well as bolstering efforts to improve remote learning methods and connectivity in case of new closings. It is of paramount importance that schools are at the forefront of openings, being that millions of childrens’ futures depend on it.