Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Will Latin America’s Schools Be Able to Reopen Safely?

Governments in Latin America, including Chilean Education Ministry officials, pictured above, are working on plans that involve social distancing for when students return to schools. // File Photo: Chilean Government. Governments in Latin America, including Chilean Education Ministry officials, pictured above, are working on plans that involve social distancing for when students return to schools. // File Photo: Chilean Government.

Countries in Latin America are starting to discuss the reopening of schools, which, along with most public places, have been closed for nearly two months during the Covid-19 pandemic. Is now the right time for schools in the region to reopen? What should public officials do to ensure that the health of students and staff is protected as classes restart? Do primary and secondary schools, as well as higher-education institutions, have enough government funding and resources to both educate students and protect their health?

Ariel Fiszbein, director of the education program at the Inter-American Dialogue: “Most countries in Latin America (the exception being Nicaragua) have closed schools in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. In spite of the ongoing efforts to scale up distance-learning approaches, students and their families are struggling to maintain a normal learning environment. The reopening of schools will most likely be a gradual process depending on the evolution of the pandemic and local conditions. Countries will need to develop detailed plans that will typically entail the gradual and possibly partial reopening of schools with rotating attendance in order to enable some social distancing. The state of school infrastructure will be a critical factor. Unfortunately, schools with poor sanitary facilities (for example, no or intermittent running water) and limited space to allow for social distancing will face serious difficulties. Addressing those difficulties will require special efforts to upgrade school infrastructure to accompany procurement of the necessary cleaning supplies and protective equipment. Teachers and directors will need to be prepared to provide remedial education and socioemotional support to students in their return to classes. Moreover, capabilities for distance learning should continue to be upgraded as the emergency may well continue throughout this and the next academic year. All of this strongly suggests that budget demands will be significant. Countries are experiencing the largest negative shock on human capital accumulation in modern times. Attention to immediate needs should not result in underinvestments with dramatic negative long-term effects.”

Michael C. Lisman, education lead in the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development: “Getting education back on track is a top priority, with major implications for Latin American and Caribbean economies. Public health and safety concerns continue to drive decisions on the timing and implementation of school reopenings, but even factors beyond virus control, including sanitation, school meal availability and adequate teacher presence, will require careful examination. Many reopening decisions will need to be made on a phased or even school-by-school basis. Assuming most countries in the region seek some degree of straightlined budgets to cover recurrent costs such as salaries, the challenge will be working quickly and efficiently with what is available. It is anticipated that multilateral lenders and international donors will provide some help to lower-income countries, where possible. All line ministries should take a fresh look at their engagement with private-sector entities across the spectrum, such as nonstate schools, contract teachers and ancillary service providers. Such entities can often be more nimble and can fill needed gaps. Access is understandably the priority at first, but teaching and learning must be addressed. Most countries of the region are opting for a policy of ‘automatic promotion’ (meaning moving all students up a grade level), which is not ideal, but probably warranted and backed by relevant international evidence. In this unprecedented scenario, equipping schools and teachers to efficiently assess and address the learning and psychosocial needs of their students will become the overarching goal. Formative assessment data is crucial to being able to develop and provide flexible, differentiated and remedial instruction.”

Timothy Scully, emeritus director of the Institute for Educational Initiatives at the University of Notre Dame: “On March 16, the Chilean Ministry of Education suspended in-person classes throughout the country. Since that time, the country’s educational establishments have been struggling with the challenges of engaging distance learning with students at all levels. This is especially challenging in contexts where many underresourced households experience the lack of adequate access to personal computers and poor Internet connectivity. These challenges will only be reinforced by the economic impact of Covid-19 on those families in lower-income categories, as a recent ECLAC study predicts that the poverty rate is anticipated to rise by 50 percent due to the crisis. Chile’s Ministry of Health has yet to determine the exact protocols if schools wish to reopen, but the sheer infrastructure challenges are daunting. And even if schools were prepared to receive students, it’s not at all certain that parents and guardians will allow their children to return to school any time soon. In a recent survey of elementary and secondary school parents undertaken by the Chilean Association of Municipalities, 96.3 percent of those asked said they would not send their children back to school during the current semester (that is, before mid-July), and nearly 40 percent reported that they would not send their children back until 2021. Add to this the deep reticence to returning to in-person instruction expressed repeatedly by the leadership of Chile’s largest teacher unions, and it is easy to see that we are probably a ways off before any serious consideration of a reopening.”

Maria Soledad Bos, education lead specialist at the Inter-American Development Bank: “When considering the reopening of schools, four key sanitary criteria must be kept in mind to allow students and teachers to return to class safely. First, ensure social distancing. This can entail gradual or staggered reopening of schools, where different groups of students take turns to return to school, reducing the number of students there at the same time. Schools can also increase the space between students’ desks, avoid group activities and restrict the number of students in hallways and bathrooms. Second, schools should be kept clean and sanitized, including a first deep cleaning and disinfection upon students’ return to school. Regular cleaning of all classrooms, furniture, common areas and especially frequently touched surfaces should be intensified. Third, ensure that students and teachers arrive and stay healthy at school by checking the health status of students upon entering school as well as communicating to parents and students the importance of staying home if they do not feel well. Fourth, ensure access to handwashing stations, with constant and sufficient access to soap and water or other hand-cleaning items.”

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