The Costs of and Response to the Covid-19 Pandemic’s Impact on the Education Sector in Latin America and the Caribbean

Small photos of the seven panelists bordering a larger photo of a children washing her hands and wearing a mask. The entire photo is in black and white with a blue tint. Main photo: Nghi Nguyen / Pixabay / CCO

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On April 15, the Inter-American Dialogue’s Education Program and the World Bank held a webinar to present the results of a World Bank report on the costs Latin American and Caribbean countries have faced due to the pandemic and school closures. Panelists from the World Bank, Chile, Brazil, and Colombia shared reflections on emerging lessons for reopening schools and discussed policy recommendations for learning recovery and a safe return to in-person classes.

This virtual panel featured Emanuela Di Gropello, practice manager for education in Latin America and the Caribbean, World Bank; Raúl Figueroa Salas, minister of education, Chile; Priscila Cruz, executive president, Education for All (Todos Pela Educação); Sandra García, associate professor, Universidad de los Andes and non-resident senior fellow, Inter-American Dialogue; and Jaime Saavedra, global director of education, World Bank. The event began with opening remarks from Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, and Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean, World Bank, and was moderated by Ariel Fiszbein, director of the Education Program at the Inter-American Dialogue. The event was attended by 484 participants.

Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have been severely affected by the pandemic. The region accounts for more than 20 percent of the world’s Covid-19 cases and approximately 30 percent of global fatalities. The pandemic has impacted social, economic, and health indicators, including a seven percent decline in the region’s GDP in 2020 and a US$ 1.7 billion loss in revenue. Recently, there has been a second wave of cases that has slowed down school reopening efforts. This has demonstrated that in the region, there is a need for a sustainable recovery process and flexible frameworks, as well as the ability to quickly adapt the education system to a combination of distance, hybrid, and face-to-face learning activities. During reopening, it is vital that countries close the educational gaps between students. At the same time, reopening provides a unique opportunity to conduct major reforms towards the creation of more equitable systems while also ensuring that schools are safe and effective.

Emanuela Di Gropello presented an overview of the key findings from the World Bank report which detailed the impact of school closures on students’ learning in Latin America and the Caribbean (see her presentation here). She began by noting that the region was already facing a learning crisis before the pandemic began. For example, 51 percent of children did not meet the minimum reading competencies at the end of primary school. In comparison to the average score for OECD countries, 15-year-olds in Latin America and the Caribbean are three years behind in reading, mathematics, and science. These learning gaps also vary widely within countries. Di Gropello cited that approximately 170 million students in the region have been affected by school closures. At the end of 2020, students had lost an average of 159 days of in-person learning, and most Latin American countries remain completely or partially closed.

While countries have implemented a variety of learning efforts through completely remote, hybrid, radio, or print formats, Di Gropello emphasized that remote learning cannot replace face-to-face learning for three reasons: 1) it is difficult to maintain student participation and engagement, especially when they lack access to digital devices, 2) it is challenging for teachers to support and monitor the needs of students, and 3) the effectiveness of distance education is limited. Overall, she cautioned that the impact of the pandemic may be widening socioeconomic gaps and increasing inequalities. This implies that among 15-year-olds, wealthy students may be up to three years ahead academically than students of a lower socioeconomic status.

Di Gropello proceeded to outline the objectives of a three-phase plan which makes an urgent call to action to address the educational challenges caused by the pandemic. The three phases are:

  1. Confront the pandemic: while schools remain closed, it is important to mitigate the loss of learning and avoid school desertion.
  2. Manage continuity: when schools reopen, it is necessary to maintain safe and secure schools, focus on learning recovery strategies, avoid student desertion, and improve student wellbeing.
  3. Improve and accelerate efforts throughout this cycle: it is critical to take advantage of opportunities to improve the educational system in the long term, increase educational financing, and build upon and improve the successful responses which emerged from the pandemic.

In addition, she discussed the four pillars that governments should consider when making decisions to ensure that schools are ready to reopen in a safe and effective manner at the national level:

  1. Safe opportunities: follow hygienic protocols, improve infrastructure, limit the number of students per school, and prioritize lower grades.
  2. Learning: adapt the curriculum and academic calendar, engage in diagnostic evaluations, implement learning recuperation programs, and strengthen hybrid learning models.
  3. Inclusion of the most marginalized students: earmark resources and implement measures focused on encouraging vulnerable groups to return to school.
  4. Wellbeing and protection: provide psychosocial and mental health support to help mitigate secondary impacts.

To conclude, Di Gropello cited that the pandemic presents an opportunity to rebuild education systems that prioritize student learning, as well as to institutionalize highlighted examples of innovation.

Raúl Figueroa Salas began his remarks by discussing the collaboration between the Chilean Ministry of Education and the World Bank, which aimed to utilize diagnostic tools to demonstrate the significant impact of the pandemic on learning, such as deteriorating performance and increasing gaps. The pandemic has also increased the risk of school desertion and affected children’s socioemotional wellbeing. At the start of the pandemic, Chile’s initial efforts were focused on sanitary measures and the suspension of classes in reaction to the increase in cases. This suspension of classes resulted in many negative consequences, despite the production of didactic content which was disseminated through various free online, television, and radio platforms. In addition, Chile completely modified its school feeding program.

While efforts to mitigate the negative consequences of the prolonged school closures continue, today the Chilean government’s main focus is to recover, as much as sanitary conditions allow, in-person learning spaces in schools. Chile has been focused on this since 2020, and in July 2020, they were able to reopen some schools. At the end of 2020, 15 percent of schools were open.

Figueroa stressed that an important part of the reopening process was rebuilding trust between parents, teachers, and students; demonstrating to them that sanitary measures can be combined with in-person learning and that there is international evidence that indicates that the classroom is a safe space. As such, Chile implemented strict protocols with the Ministry of Health and formed an advisory council which included participants from international organizations such as UNESCO and UNICEF, national organizations, health and education experts, and teachers, among others. The minister cited a study conducted with the Ministry of Health which found that 89 percent of schools that were open in March had no outbreaks of Covid-19, and only 2.5 percent of reopened schools had two or more cases. This study, along with international evidence, demonstrated that safe reopening is possible and provided information to the public which improved confidence. These distinct measures were accompanied by prioritizing the vaccination of all education workers, with a reported 90 percent of these workers vaccinated at the time of the event, 95 percent of whom have already received their second dose. The remaining percent opted to remain unvaccinated. Vaccination improves the safety of reopening.

It is essential that schools not only reopen but that they are prepared to address the negative consequences the closure has had on learning. As such, Figueroa mentioned that Chile created a plan called Chile Recovers and Learns (Chile Recupera y Aprende in Spanish), which focuses on three areas: 1) learning recovery, 2) socioemotional wellbeing, and 3) reincorporation and retention of children who abandoned the system. To do so, Chile is using an early warning alert system and management tool to contact students. These strategies have helped to recover 6 out of every 10 students who the school was previously unable to contact. In addition, the country engaged in an Integrated Learning Diagnostic assessment which allowed schools to evaluate all students’ socioemotional state and learning levels in reading and mathematics.

Priscila Cruz highlighted some of the negative impacts of the pandemic on education in Brazil, such as worsening connections between teachers and students, as well as poor learning outcomes, mental health, nutrition, and physical development. Cruz stressed that collaboration between governments and civil society has played a key role in confronting a variety of emerging challenges. She also discussed three main areas in which civil society can play a major role: first, a greater focus must be given to governance, including cooperation between different ministries (education, health, social, sports, and finance), legislative bodies, and the judicial branch. For example, Todos Pela Educação helped the Brazilian National Congress to pass a new funding redistribution program (FUNDEB). Second, emergency, short-term policy measures must be passed, such as learning assessments, teacher training, professional development, and targeted strategies for improving family and student engagement. Third, clearly defined public policies are needed which invest more time, money, and management efforts towards closing learning gaps.

These policies should focus on three main areas:

  1. Early childhood development and reduction of inequalities.
  2. Initial university-level training on pedagogy and the use of technology.
  3. Modernization of high schools to reduce dropout rates at the secondary level.

To conclude her remarks, Cruz emphasized that the majority of the educational challenges the region is facing today are not technical problems, but instead political ones. Presidents, society, and executives must understand the need to increase investment in education.

During her presentation, Sandra García asked how long the phrase “while schools remain closed” will continue to be used. García shared that school reopening has been slower than expected in the region as compared to the rest of the world, in part because the pandemic has hit Latin America much harder, but also because the region has been much slower in preparing and supporting schools during the emergency. She also agreed with the World Bank’s study that distance education cannot replace in-person learning, above all due to challenges regarding student-teacher interactions and the lack of opportunities to motivate students and ensure their permanence.

García indicated that, in order to support countries in preparing for reopening, it is critical to have a clear set of criteria regarding when to reopen or close schools. To establish these criteria, alliances, governance, and collaboration between health and education ministries are fundamental. There must also be an understanding of what basic conditions are necessary to reopen safely. Here, it is important to consider that the decision to reopen is not all schools or none, but instead can vary at the local level. The definition of a safe school should align with the context. To this end, García presented three recommendations for reopening. First, prioritize areas with students who need more in-person learning, for example, students from rural areas. Second, resolve political challenges and address the resistance from some sectors (for example, parents and teacher unions). This requires strong communication, good alignment, and confidence-building. Third, prioritize teacher vaccination.

Finally, to improve education systems in Latin America and the Caribbean and strengthen learning, it is necessary to share experiences, content, and methodologies within the region. It is also important to invest in the teaching profession, support and train teachers, and incentivize their growth. Countries should hire more teachers and consider this moment as an opportunity to improve initial and continual teacher training.

Jaime Saavedra spoke about the importance of understanding the urgency of current educational needs. He stressed that there is a difference between the current sanitary crisis, which has impacted the region heavily in the short term, and the resulting educational crisis, the likes of which the region has never seen before. The education crisis has a less visible impact in the short term but portends catastrophic consequences on future productivity and wellbeing in the long term.

He shared four focus areas:

  1. Fiscal resources: continue to invest, protect, and expand resources for education.
  2. Evaluation: focus greater attention on measuring what is happening with regards to learning at every level, ensure teachers understand how their students are performing, and restart national evaluations to know where the country stands, how many students are behind, and who they are.
  3. Schools: understand the urgency of the learning crisis which stems from previous challenges and is increasing in severity due to the pandemic.
  4. Reopening: use evidence more efficiently to inform reopening.

There is an opportunity to move towards a better and more equitable system than that which existed before the pandemic. To do so, it is critical to build on the lessons learned from the pandemic. One of those lessons is to immediately close the digital divide, while another is to recognize the crucial role of teachers in the education process. A third lesson is to understand that education is a process of human interaction – a good education requires a good teacher. As such, the moment has come to professionalize the teaching profession. Finally, education should be resilient, and there needs to be interconnectivity within the education processes between school, home, and work to reduce the inequities that exist, not only at the school level but also at the household level. Ensure that technology, books, connectivity, and support for parents are part of education policy.

Ariel Fiszbein provided the closing remarks, highlighting important takeaways from the panelists:

  • There was a general consensus regarding the urgency and gravity of the current situation and that it will have very damaging effects in the long term. This calls for all of us to cooperate to address what is a true and profound education crisis.
  • Much energy is focused on reopening, but reopening and accommodations are long term efforts. There needs to be more attention for several years which requires a comprehensive plan.
  • It was very clear that from a financial point of view and in terms of the deeper investment that was needed before the pandemic, educational financing is now vital. This investment can no longer be only from public funds but should also come from the private sector.
  • It is necessary to support teachers so that they can respond to the crisis. While this challenge existed prior to the pandemic, it is now more urgent.
  • Pedagogical considerations cannot be forgotten. It is necessary to adapt curriculum, establish goals that prioritize basic learning and recovery strategies, and collect information to know how students are doing. This requires diagnostic evaluations to be able to implement effective strategies oriented towards reducing learning gaps.

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