And one day, suddenly, everything stopped. And, as Gabriel García Marquez would say in his novel, perhaps “It was inevitable”. When we wrote The future is now a few months ago and we were talking about disruptions in the global order, we never thought that they would come with such virulence and, even less, that the trigger would be a virus that will force us all to stop what we were doing to start doing things differently. The theory of behavior tells us that it takes time to change habits and behavioral patterns. If anything, COVID-19 had the ability to radically change our basic behaviors from one day to the other. There has been a shock and it is possible that some of the transformations that were necessary to make the leap to a new reality now happen in the short term and without planning.
COVID-19 impacts us all not only as individuals but more structurally: security, health, education, the economy, the institutions, and the national and global governance. At the very least, the crisis is affecting us in the daily actions that we took for granted. Confinement and social distancing are on the opposite side of the freedom to move around, to interact with others, to procure goods and services that we had enjoyed without questioning. Even in the context of the emergency, Governments agree that these extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures limiting in practice freedoms, checks and balances, and the transparency necessary for the operation of any system called democratic. The coronavirus does not discriminate, but our health coverage, and our economic and educational capacity to respond to the emergency at the individual level do. Anybody can be infected by COVID-19, but some people are more exposed than others, and many cannot be tested or treated because they don’t have health insurance.
91% of the world’s children and youth are temporarily outside the classrooms, but only some will keep learning during the emergency because many lack access to physical and technological infrastructure, to platforms, to parents who can support learning, and to teachers prepared to learn and teach remotely. The crisis highlights -in a more dramatic manner- the pervasive socio-economic differences already existing among students.
While it is true that nobody was prepared for such a disruption, some countries were better equipped than others – probably because they had experienced similar circumstances before. While for example in South Korea or China nationwide school closures did not meant that students stopped learning-, in other systems the crisis is having an impact on the most vulnerable students, widening an already existing inequality gap. We know that inequality is pervasive and increases with age and schooling years, and can be observed in both basic skills and social skills, as well as motivation and educational and professional aspirations of young people.
What is happening in Latin America and the Caribbean? Countries in the region are trying to restore -within their existing capabilities- educational services and trying to reach the most vulnerable. However, the health crisis is having economic consequences and is aggravating the educational emergency the region already had. Before COVID-19, 263 million children, adolescents and youth worldwide were out of school; of these, 12.7 million were in Latin America and the Caribbean, and a majority of those dropouts happened during secondary education. Today, due to the pandemic, over 1,500 million students are out of school worldwide (UNESCO) and approximately 154 million children are in the region.
What can COVID-19’s school disruption represent in terms of learning? Schools, education and training centers, and universities have an equalizing effect; they have the potential to contribute to correct part of the impact that family background has on academic and employment opportunities and careers of children and young people. The equalizing effects of school fade out when the physical spaces close and learning moves into the family environment, making it entirely dependent on household’s resources. The closest thing to estimating possible learning losses is the existing evidence of what happens during vacation time. Meta-analysis and recent studies indicate significant academic losses during the summer break. These losses are higher for math than for reading and most detrimental for low-income students. In the region, a preliminary study in Paraguay (coordinated by IPA and carried out by Andrew Dustan, Stanislao Maldonado and Juan M. Hernandez-Agramonte) measured what vulnerable students loose during the summer break and observed that the learning loss in mathematics is 0.36 and 0.25 standard deviations in 3rd and 4th grade students respectively.
In other words, the most vulnerable students who are currently left without access to educational services are both, losing what they learned and not learning new content. In sharp contrast, more well-off students keep learning and strengthening what they already know. What does this represent in concrete terms? Let’s look at this calculation. An average student in the United States gains approximately 8 points in mathematics during the school year (following the MAP test scoring system) but then loses 4 points over the summer. This is approximately what they would be losing during the current school closure, assuming it is two to three months. The problem now is that not everybody will go on break as it happens during summertime. While those students stop learning, others will continue to learn and gain approximately 2.7 points in math. In other words, the difference in performance between high- and low-income students in three months could be practically one school year. Of course, if educational services are not reestablished during that time, then the learning loss would be even greater, and the gaps would continue to widen.
Why are #skills21 so important in the context of COVID-19? Because these skills contribute, not only to better navigate the crisis, but to prepare for the aftermath, when the health emergency is over. Those skills contribute to keep learning and protect our minds from traumas related to adverse environments. A child who has been exposed to stress has much more difficulties to gain new skills and learn. It is essential to understand and take care of what is happening in his/her “operating system”. 21st century skills (also called transversal skills) are life skills widely transferable to different settings and not specific to a job, task, sector, discipline and occupation. Indeed, 20 years ago, Heckman already emphasized that non-cognitive skills and motivation are important determinants of success; this is why educational programs should intervene since the early years and include mentoring and teenage motivation programs.
From an education perspective, what is the reality that children and young people are facing in the region right now, and the most vulnerable ones in particular? The first thing that comes to mind is overcrowding in homes, the lack of private spaces to enable quiet work or the lack of technological infrastructure and connectivity. But, the reality is more complex: children and young people are isolated and disconnected from friends and teachers; don’t count with the support of parents who -in many cases- have lost their source of income and are worried about solving basic needs; they require adaptability, flexibility and the ability to adjust to a completely new context; they face anxiety and stress because of what they hear about the disease, and the fear and consequences of contagion spread around their family and close friends; they might experience situations of domestic violence which can seriously increase in confinement situations; they lack motivation to complete school assignments and get things done; working autonomously requires the ability to self-regulate and perseverance which they have not necessarily developed; they need creativity to continue learning in an environment where they might not have educational tools and toys, but could use sticks, pots or stones. Even for those who have access to connectivity and electronic devices (such as tablets or computers), distance learning requires digital skills that neither parents nor students have acquired due to the lack of preparation and drastic schools’ shut down. Children require a set of cognitive and socio-emotional skills that, in many cases, have not been developed, that play a key role in situations like this pandemic.
The confinement has effects on physical and mental health. Children who have been exposed to trauma are at greater risk of developing mental illness, delayed cognitive development, and addiction and other risk behaviors. Children and young people are especially affected by their environment and, when they combine multiple adverse factors, including traumas that affect the whole community such as a pandemic, the risk of developing post-traumatic stress and other related disorders increases.
The good news is that we are learning very fast. In the context of the crisis, one of the things we have learned from the massive school closures and the abrupt transition to online and distance learning is that there is a need to adopt national channels for providing socio-emotional support to parents and educators. But also, for children. From other epidemics like Ebola, we know that arts programs focused on mental health can significantly reduce the symptoms of psychological stress in children. We also know that we need to expand the work we do with parents to help them develop communication skills that will allow them to create channels of interaction with their children, to identify any physical or psychological problems, and to comfort them emotionally in order to strengthen their resilience and creativity, self-discipline, and to regulate anxiety.
Given the urgency and importance of #skills21 today, we will have a blog series around COVID-19 where key actors from the field of education will share their experience in response to the pandemic. Together, we will help to navigate this situation through a sequence of contributions that will include different perspectives. In October 2019, a Coalition joined by different public and private organizations was created to promote the development of 21st century skills in Latin America and the Caribbean. As of today, more than 25 organizations are part of this Coalition and many of them are contributing with their experience, knowledge and resources to this massive effort that is needed now.
What would be the content of the series? We would like to address the relevance of those skills precisely in a context of crisis. It is when people are under stress conditions that transversal skills like resilience, adaptability, learnability, mindfulness, compassion, empathy or solidarity are more necessary and can make a difference. In addition, now that students, teachers and families need to do everything at distance because we cannot have social interactions, we realize how many people are really struggling because they don’t have the skills needed to navigate a digital world. We will provide a space to share concrete ideas on what good response models to the crisis should look like; what educational tools can best support children, youth and adult’s “operating system” during the pandemic; how to increase the motivation of students who are working remotely to reduce absenteeism; how sports and music programs can contribute to physical and mental health; or what tools can help prevent gender violence in vulnerable contexts.
Today, the crisis provides us with an opportunity. The crisis has shown the profound transformation that education systems need. As an Argentinean professor said “we have to start from scratch”, teachers, parents, students, and we all have to collaborate to keep schools open even more so during these times: not the physical buildings, but the educational project. And for that we need something more than mathematics, reading and science. What is happening now will surely redefine a world that is no longer coming back, and that was probably necessary. Unfortunately, there are things we will not be able to do during this crisis to bring education to the most vulnerable students. But we must ensure that we are ready for the future, and that’s what we are going to talk about here.
If you are interested in #skills21 and want to learn more about how to take advantage of confinement and better prepare for post-COVID-19 life, we invite you to participate and follow our blog series on education and #skills21 in times of coronavirus. Also, download our publication and keep an eye out for news!