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Latin America: education in the midst of the pandemic

Amérique latine : éducation et pandémie

Our two associations, Amiguitos and Bailando Juntos, aim to fight malnutrition in children under 12 years of age. We know that malnourished children suffer irreparable physical and intellectual consequences that handicap them for life, whatever is done afterwards. Feeding them today means that tomorrow they will be able to study, work and lead a dignified life. Nevertheless, our associations have never totally lost interest in the education of the children who attend our centers. For example, the El Refugio center takes in boarding school children and, in addition to providing them with food, it also takes care of their education until they stop studying. Similarly, a special fund has been set up in the Maria Auxiliadora center to subsidize the purchase of uniforms so that the children can go to school.

The impact of the pandemic on children’s schooling

The Covid crisis has particularly affected the educational pathways of poor children in Latin America. As of 24 March 2021, UNICEF estimates that partial or total school closures in Latin America and the Caribbean will have deprived an estimated 114 million students of formal education. One year after the start of the pandemic, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) remained the region with the largest number of children still without access to formal schooling. On average, children in this region have lost 158 days of face-to-face schooling. 

Despite government efforts to ensure the continuity of distance learning through virtual platforms, radio and television, school disruptions have had a devastating impact on students’ learning outcomes, protection, health, mental health and socio-economic prospects. The longer children are out of school, the less likely they are to return. It is estimated that more than 3 million children in LAC could drop out of school permanently as a result of the pandemic. 

In a region where, prior to COVID-19, many students are not achieving basic levels of maths, reading and writing in primary and secondary school, the impact of a prolonged interruption of schooling on learning outcomes will be severe and long-lasting.

The effects of COVID-19 on the illiteracy rate

According to a UNESCO study the number of children lacking basic reading skills, which was on a downward curve before the pandemic, should have fallen from 483 million to 460 million by 2020. Instead, the number of children struggling jumped to 584 million last year, increasing by more than 20% and erasing the progress made over the past two decades. For Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a World Bank report, 71 percent of lower secondary school students are unable to understand an average length text. Before the pandemic, this figure was 55%.

The UNESCO study cited above indicates that while a return to the pre-pandemic situation could take a decade, recovery could occur by 2024 if exceptional efforts are made to provide remedial courses and strategies. However, according to new data from a joint survey by UNESCO and UNICEF, only a quarter of students are currently benefiting from such remedial programmes. 

More than numbers, we thought it would be interesting to ask center managers how they and their families have adapted to this situation. 

Marina’s testimony: How El Refugio had to adapt so that the children could continue their education

“The schools were closed in April 2020 and the families of all the students started to train to start in the virtual world (it was a new subject for all of us): learning how to deal with platforms, emails and another way of teaching.  

We had sent all the children back to their families as a precaution. At that time, the pandemic picture was very uncertain and we felt the fear that some of the children might be infected at home. The mid-year holidays were brought forward in schools and during this time teachers were trained to deal with virtual education.  

 In May, the children start the virtual classes. We start working with the children through the Wasa platform from their homes. I would review all the activities of each child on the platform, and by phone or via Wasa, I would explain their homework. Then they would send me pictures of their notebooks and I would forward them to the school. 

We were able to get resources and we were able to get three mobile phones for the teenagers so that we could work with them. 

With your help, with the money you send us every three months, we have managed to feed the children and their families. Many of them were left without work. And our biggest concern was that our children would not go hungry. So, thank God, it was possible to send them a market every two weeks, and help them with rent and utilities. 

Mobile phones were also loaded from here to study with them. It was a very hard month, studying with the 14 children from a distance was hard work. We also helped the children’s younger brothers to study. But thank God we did it and by far, we finished 2020 with all the children who passed the year, and with our oldest student who finished high school. 

We start again in 2021 with a 100% virtual education. So we decided to welcome the children to the Refuge, and to avoid the risk of contagion we did the Covid test when we entered (they all came out negative) and we stayed here with them for the whole first semester, without going out on weekends, without seeing their families. 

Here, no one went in or out of the house as a precaution. It was a very special and wonderful few months to be together again after such a long time… Thanks to friends, a company donated 10 second-hand computers, installed them and the children were able to connect to the virtual classrooms here. It was easier to study with them.

In the mid-year holidays (June 2021), we thought it was wise for them to meet their families and we sent them home for a fortnight. Once they were back, there was less risk of contagion and the vaccination had progressed. So everyone came back, the schools opened and our children went back to school too. 

What the pandemic left us with in terms of education: in general, everyone has a low level of knowledge in certain subjects. So in the meantime, we are studying hard, reinforcing in them all the academic knowledge that they lack. In terms of adaptation at the beginning of the school year, it was not so difficult, everyone adapted relatively easily. Now they all study in the schools that support them.

Testimony of Father Oscar

“In 2020 in Bolivia, the schools were closed, but all the children were moved up to the next grade by the government’s decision, so they don’t have the necessary level to follow their schooling properly this year. 

In 2021 the government has decided to introduce virtual classes, or in some cases, semi-personal classes. Here in the district, virtual classes have not been successful as families have little or no access to the internet; most do not even have a computer or mobile phone. Some tried to get a phone so that their children could follow their lessons via Zoom or Meet, but the parents were helpless in the face of the school task and asked for a return to face-to-face classes. They only got a return to semi-presence, meaning that the children went to classes three days a week and attended virtual classes when they could. 

This solution led to a resurgence of the epidemic among the children and teachers, and some of the latter died. Although the Ministry of Education requires strict hygiene standards and barrier practices to be followed, unfortunately many adults and children do not and the third wave of Covid has been violent here; we mourn the deaths of some family members in the neighborhood. Since September, school has resumed a more normal rhythm and the pandemic is receding. But we know that we are not safe from a fourth wave.”

Taking stock of the situation

The evidence suggests that every effort must be made to limit school drop-out and learning loss among children, and thus try to avoid a “generational catastrophe“. This means prioritising education in the recovery, but it is estimated that 65% of governments in low-income countries have cut funding for education, compared to 35% in high-income countries. 

In Latin America and the Caribbean, COVID-19 left 97% of students unable to continue their regular education for almost a year. This means that an estimated 137 million girls and boys had no formal education at all. In addition to the basic skills deficits in schooling that will have long-lasting effects, there is a projected 15% increase in school dropouts at a time when the LAC region had the greatest inequalities in student access to quality education in the world even before the pandemic.

In the words of Audrey Azoulay, Director-General of UNESCO: “The crisis has shown how education is a global public good; it must be protected. In 2020, 1.6 billion children worldwide were affected by school closures. Some eighteen months later, in August 2021, there are still 600 million.  Three out of every five children worldwide who have lost a full year of schooling live in the Latin American and Caribbean regions. In Mexico, schools even closed on 23 March 2020 and have never reopened since! 

The picture is bleak and we need to react with all the members of our centers!


[REF. 1] https://www.unicef.fr/article/114-millions-denfants-ne-sont-toujours-pas-scolarises-en-amerique-latine-et-dans-les  

[REF. 2] https://fr.unesco.org/news/100-millions-denfants-supplementaires-natteignant-pas-niveau-minimum-lecture-cause-du-covid-19  

[REF. 3] https://www.espaces-latinos.org/archives/98291  

[REF. 4] https://www.lemonde.fr/international/article/2021/03/26/covid-19-la-fermeture-des-ecoles-est-une-catastrophe-generationnelle-selon-l-unesco_6074624_3210.html  

[REF. 5] https://www.ouest-france.fr/education/ecole/covid-19-rouvrir-les-ecoles-du-monde-entier-pour-eviter-un-fleau-social4745a7b4-09b1-11ec-82a5-fcae259b0fc1

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