NEWARK, Delaware — The schools of Latin America have been hit hard by COVID-19. For many of these nations, schools remain closed and learning solutions successful in other countries are not feasible. The situation is projected to continue with significant harm to Latin America’s education system. This disruption in education means children will take longer to attain an education, and thus, children will take longer to enter the labor force to break the cycle of poverty.
COVID-19 and Education in Latin America
According to UNICEF, the COVID-19 pandemic has put education “on hold for more than 137 million children in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Students in these countries have lost four times more school days than in other countries. The statement goes on to highlight the disparity in education quality based on wealth. UNICEF again cements its intention to support distance learning but ends by stating the importance of reopening schools. However, as many schools remain determined to stay closed, this could still be far off.
Impact of School Closures
The effects of long-term school closures have been widespread and vary depending on the country. Regardless of the country, closures result in a loss of learning opportunity. As of early November 2020, students in Latin America had lost 174 school days and this number has only grown. A UNICEF report warns that the lack of education in Latin America could lead to a “generational catastrophe” if allowed to continue. The U.N. has projected that the pandemic could still remove up to three million additional students from schools, even as countries attempt to normalize remote learning.
Along with the damage of dropout rates is the loss of services provided by schools. For 80 million low-income students in Latin America and the Caribbean, in-school nutrition meant one guaranteed meal. Additional food programs and health services are also now out of reach for these students while many parents lack steady income. Many low-income families rely on these services and the loss of them has dealt an extra blow to impoverished families.
Virtual learning is not always an option since many lack access to the internet. Without a unified central way of teaching and learning, teachers find it hard to track the progress of students.
Learning Loss and the Wealth Divide
In a study by the World Bank, the impact of the lost school year can already be seen. It projected that the number of students below the minimum proficiencies by grade level is expected to rise from 53% pre-pandemic to as high as 68%. Education in Latin America was already an uphill-fight, implementing programs to catch up with the rest of the world. The COVID-19 pandemic could possibly erase the progress made. The study found that remote schooling could eliminate as much as 30% of the pandemic-induced learning loss. However, when looking at the public schools where the most impoverished are taught, this rate is closer to 6-18%. This difference supports UNICEF’s claims of unequal education.
The reason behind education inequality is clear: access. Across Latin America, as little as 60% of households have internet access. Without a way to reach students at home, educators have no way to teach. This problem also does not end in households but extends to the schools themselves. In Panama, only 75% of public schools have internet or equipment necessary to teach remotely. These issues were present before the pandemic, making disadvantaged schools ill-prepared to face closures of this length.
Supporting Teachers During COVID-19
One strategy that could turn the tide of learning loss is aid and specific training to educators. Teachers have large roles in shaping the lives of their students, and with the right aid, they can be more impactful. To address these technological barriers during COVID-19, UNICEF, provided 900 Venezuelan teachers with internet-enabled smartphones as well as distance learning training to support their ability to teach remotely and keep in touch with students.
NGOs and nonprofits in Latin America are also working to assist teachers in this regard. Educando is a nonprofit that has transitioned its core programs to be fully online and works alongside teachers throughout the pandemic.
“We’ve been giving our support, as well as emotional support and technological training, more than ever,” Kelly Maurice, executive director for Educando, told The Borgen Project in an interview about the changes 2020 has brought. Educando, founded in 2002, conducts several programs, all aimed at improving Latin America’s education system. Since March 2020, this has mostly involved training teachers to be able to teach remotely. This includes weekly webinars, training programs, and Thank A Teacher, a campaign supporting teachers by providing them with specialized materials and resources.
Educando is aware that teachers strongly impact education in Latin America, and now more than ever, these teachers need extra help. According to Maurice, “as long as the teacher stays, our investment stays.” There is still much to be done before Latin America’s education system progresses as it had before. Organizations like UNICEF and Educando are aware of educational disparities and the need for remote learning. Until schools can fully reopen, these efforts will ensure that learning continues during COVID-19.
– Matthew McKee