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Guatemala closed schools due to the pandemic on March 16, 2020. Three months later, teacher Edvin Mó had already created an entire alternative plan to the Ministry of Education’s Learn at Home proposal. “My children would never have understood them, they were not contextualized,” he says by phone. So he decided to put together groups of three or four students from the Chixajau Village, in the department of Alta Verapaz, and go to teach them. “We put on masks and carried a board, I didn’t mind exposing myself to the virus. It was the only way for them to feel that something was normal, ”he recalls. 1,500 kilometers from there, in the Mexican state of Nueva León, Ariana Lucio Muñoz also decided to rewrite the notebooks that arrived at her rural school just at the end of the year. “No material on-line it served us. Almost no one in the community has internet. We had to find the strategies ourselves, ”she says by video call.
The pandemic turned everything upside down. And education was no exception. Latin America and the Caribbean was the region that took the longest to reopen. Although it was unfair to ask governments to prepare the first months, both teachers and students, especially in rural areas of the continent, criticized the distance of the Ministries of Education. They feel that they did not take into account the particular context of the 170 million children and adolescents and their pace of learning.
The pandemic and economic necessity have driven more than three million school-age children out of school in the past three years. Currently, according to data from the World Bank and the UN agency for children, Unicef, there are 15 million children and adolescents who do not go to school. It is a figure similar to the population of Ecuador. For Alejandra Meglioli, director of the regional quality and impact program of Save the Children, Talking about desertion is euphemistic: “They are children that the system did not know how to keep in the classes, it is exclusion.” The consequences of this early departure are very different depending on the sex: women tend to become pregnant or take care of the home, while men go to work, mainly in the fields. At home or harvesting, the pandemic stole their childhood.
The same report from the World Bank and UNICEF shows worrying figures: four out of five children under the age of 10 are unable to read a short text. For Ítalo Dutra, regional advisor for Education for the United Nations Children’s Fund, this data is “alarming”: “We already had a very strong learning crisis. Our economic and social development was already stagnant as a result. Not investing in the smallest is perpetuating low social mobility, accessing worse jobs, earning less… Let the same cycle of poverty continue”. The economic impact is inescapable. According to an estimate by Jaime Saavedra, Director General of Education at the World Bank, the generation of children left behind in low-income countries will cause a loss of 11 trillion dollars. “In some countries, it is as if the pandemic has wiped out ten years of progress,” he explained in an interview with The Economist.
In countries like Peru, where schools were closed for around two years —more than discos or hairdressers— there are already some signs of the wound that this left in learning. Carla Gamberini Coz, executive director and co-founder of MásEducaciónPe, explains that, at the end of last year, the Virtual Learning Assessment (EVA) that was given to 48% of second-year Primary and second-year Secondary students found disturbing data. “The average performance in reading comprehension has fallen 16 points since 2019, which was the last time this test was taken. It is a big jump, considering that, between 2015 and 2019, the difference had been only 0.3 points ”, she comments. In mathematics, the situation was similar: the trend fell by 13 points. But what makes Gamberini most uneasy is the emotional part. “The data indicates that only one in ten boys is able to control their emotions and that only two in ten have the possibility of making friends easily,” she recalls.
In Peru, moreover, this precedent is combined with other bad news: as in a kind of deja vuSeveral schools closed again, not because of the pandemic, but because of the torrential rains and the protests brought about by the country’s political crisis. “Contrary to what was said during the covid, that the importance of education had finally become visible, in the face of any new problem, Peru, instead of avoiding closing schools or avoiding delaying the start of school, which it has done to regional level is not to start education again”, he points out.
For its part in Colombia, desertion also increased during the pandemic, although more in the private sector than in the public. As explained by the Ministry of Education to América Futura, while in official education dropout between 2020 and 2021 increased to 4.1% (after historically fluctuating around 3.1%), in the non-official sector “there is a clear jump from 2019 to 2020 going from 2.6% to 5.7%”. “This behavior may be related to the economic capacity of parents to support students in non-official schools. Additionally, in 2021, this upward trend is maintained, reaching 6.1%, ”they say.
If there is any gap in the continent that deepened during the pandemic, it was the digital one. The covid forced digitization and remote study in countries with very low rates of internet access. In Brazil, one in three citizens cannot connect. In Guatemala, this figure reaches 50%. And in Peru, 25%. “This remote education model left a lot of people out, especially the youngest children,” adds Dutra.
Professor Ariana Lucio Muñoz, from the Mexican state of Nueva León, feels that her classroom was one of those that was left on the margins. “I felt a lot of frustration. We feel more disadvantaged than ever, they talked to us about giving classes via Zoom when neither the teachers knew how to use it nor the students had a place to connect from, ”she laments. “I feel that plan b was designed for another reality, definitely not for rural areas.”
Sofialeticia Morales Garza, Secretary of Education of that same State, celebrates that practically 100% of the students returned to face-to-face. “Raising awareness with parents played a very important role. After all, they were the ones who made the last decision to send the minor or not ”, she explains by video call. For Morales, there are two fundamental challenges in his mandate: bringing to school the more than 9,000 adolescents who dropped out and applying hybrid models as a choice and not out of necessity: “We want to bet on that because it is what education in the 21st century demands ”.
“The debate about digitizing education is not new,” says Bibiam Díaz, education specialist at CAF-development bank of Latin America. “The incorporation of technology into learning was the most unequal, but today it is an opportunity. And there are many countries that are making real efforts to reduce precisely this gap, ”he points out.
However, the digital divide did not imply a drop in enrollment in rural areas in countries like Colombia. “Inclusively, it is observed that the great weight of the decrease in enrollment (126,685 students in the period evaluated), is much greater in the urban area (108,182), while 18,503 correspond to the rural area,” indicates the Ministry of Education.
A new paradigm, a new education?
The educational scenario took a 180 degree turn. However, experts point out that there are infinite possibilities to take advantage of the current paradigm and shape the post-pandemic Latin American school. For them, there are four fundamental characteristics that a new education must have: a school that is flexible for individual needs, a study plan that develops skills and competencies, teacher training so that they do not feel they are alone, and a protocol that brings the classrooms closer to the community. “The reality of a school in Chocó (Colombian Pacific) has nothing to do with another in Bogotá,” adds Díaz. “Access and opportunities have to be the same.”
Daniela Trucco, Senior Social Affairs Officer of the Social Development Division of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (Cepal), and who was part of a publication on education in the region during the pandemic in the Some recommendations are given on how to transform teaching also throws up some signals. The first thing is to do diagnostic tests to find out what the learning gaps of boys and girls are. But, beyond that, she clarifies, more support must be obtained in schools to be aware of the socio-emotional well-being of the community. “The ideal would be one independent psychologist per school but, since it is difficult, education must be articulated with the policies of the health sector.”
In addition, it suggests that the teaching staff should be strengthened, since not all of them necessarily have the skills to address the needs of students, “both in their health and in the recovery of learning.” The most important thing, however, is what has been said even before the pandemic: invest in education, but “with a vision of transformation, not of recovering the status quo before the covid-19, but of a more inclusive education”.