No classes, no teachers, no friends, no games, and no daily routine that children are used to. Now all the days seem the same. The health crisis has significantly changed our day to day. This has been a radical change for all students of Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), not only being inside all day long but trying to learn from somewhere other than school.
Across the LAC region, primary education coverage is nearly universal which means that almost all children between 6 and 12-years old attend school regularly. In preschool and secondary school, although coverage is lower, 8 out of 10 children and youth attend school (see CIMA). Today, the pandemic has generated a disruption in education systems: almost all schools in LAC are closed. More than 165 million students at all education levels are at home[i]. Therefore, they must learn from home: with the tools they have at hand, the support of their parents, and limited help from their teachers.
We still do not know when students will return to face-to-face classes. Confronted with this uncertainty, the Ministries of Education in LAC have invested efforts to: inform the education community about the health crisis, provide social assistance, distribute resources, and offer distance learning alternatives.
The main challenge facing countries under these circumstances is to reach the largest number of students possible with pedagogical content. The gamble is on finding ways to continue teaching and learning processes from home that serve all students.
In LAC countries, different modes of education have been combined as an immediate response to deliver content to students, including digital platforms, television, radio, and printed material.
How much can we hope that these strategies will guarantee learning during and after the emergency? The data tells us that the solutions will not work equally for all countries and all students.
When considering digital platforms, which are tools that allow interaction and monitoring of learning in real-time, two aspects emerge. One is that the development and successful implementation of any digital solution is a process that requires great effort. Even before the emergency, many LAC countries did not have the basic digital conditions to provide online education (see CIMA Brief), and that has become a greater challenge now that Ministries of Education are not operating at their regular capacity. The second aspect is that these tools rarely reach the most vulnerable populations. Studies in primary and secondary education have shown little incorporation of digital tools in the teaching and learning processes.
Moreover, there is inequality in access to technology, connectivity, and digital resources, whereby the majority of the students in the region do not have the basic technological conditions for online learning from home (see CIMA Brief). For example, in Latin America, less than 30% of the most vulnerable households have access to a computer in the home for schoolwork. Also, the internet is one of the requirements for online learning solutions, but very few countries in the region have widespread access.
As for LAC’s teachers, their familiarity with digital resources has been historically low (TALIS). Less than 60% of secondary school teachers have the technical and pedagogical abilities to integrate digital devices into instruction (see CIMA Brief). Schools in more vulnerable contexts have teachers less prepared to integrate digital devices into instruction (55%), compared with 68% of schools with more privileged environments.
Socioeconomic gaps also influence the support that parents can offer in encouraging their children’s learning at home. Parents play a key role. In most countries, parents who come from more privileged backgrounds (with higher socioeconomic status) are more involved with student learning and progress (see CIMA Brief). The added conditions of economic, social and emotional instability that families face during the emergency can influence the support parents are able to offer their children at home.
Education in the LAC region has been characterized by unequal access and by low and unequal learning results (see PISA Brief). The gaps were already very wide even before COVID-19. In Latin America, the differences in learning between students from vulnerable and privileged contexts are equivalent to more than two years of schooling (363 vs. 464 points in reading, PISA-2018) (see CIMA)[ii]. The role of the school in equalizing learning opportunities has been interrupted. Thus, the efforts of Ministries of Education to prevent the gaps from widening much more during and after the health emergency are very important. The analog (television and radio) and print media have reached the most vulnerable. However, the role of teachers and parents is now more important than ever in the accompaniment and monitoring of students, especially those who need it most.
While schools have reopened in Uruguay with the gradual incorporation of students in low-risk rural areas, the date seems uncertain for the rest of the LAC countries. Countries approaching the end of their school year[iii] are considering ending the school year early. Those that had just started the school year[iv] still do not have an estimated reopening date. Everything indicates that countries should plan to continue distance education models during 2020. It is not yet known when it will be safe to reduce social distancing and open schools safely. Thus, it is imperative that these distance education resources that were made available as a rapid response to the emergency be seen as effective learning alternatives, even after the emergency.
We live in times of great uncertainty, where there are more questions than answers. There is a possibility that the learning gaps in the region will widen. While scenarios are planned and impacts are estimated, the uncertainty continues. The emergency will pass, and meanwhile education must continue to ensure the learning of all students. Thus, it is essential that countries plan and reflect on what is coming next, once the emergency is over and the education systems have to face greater challenges, such as the social and economic ones that will prevail after the COVID-19 crisis.
Will children be able to learn from home? Will countries be able to generate policies and plans that can reverse or minimize the effects of the crisis on student learning in the most vulnerable contexts?
[i] UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2020. Calculates the data available to date from 26 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.
[ii] In PISA, on average in all countries, the difference between adjacent grade scores is approximately 40 points. For more information, refer to the report: OECD (2019), PISA 2018 Results (Volume I): What Students Know and Can Do, p. 44.
[iii] These countries include The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela,
[iv] These countries include Bolivia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, Uruguay, Nicaragua and Panama.