Latin America’s Education Pandemic

A Canning House paper reveals the horrific damage that strict lockdown policies have inflicted on the region’s young…

Latin America took a bigger hit from the pandemic – both in terms of deaths and economic impact – than any other region on earth. But while the pandemic now appears to be entering the endgame, there could be more pain ahead for Latin America. That’s because the region closed schools for longer than anywhere else on earth. Many public schools in Latin America still haven’t reopened since March 2020. A recent Canning House paper, reveals result of these short-sighted lockdown policies will be worse inequality and lower economic growth in the future.

Poor education

Unfortunately for young Latin Americans the region’s education system was already in a weak position before the pandemic hit. Performance varies widely between countries, but region-wide 51% of children could not read proficiently by late primary age, compared to the global average of 48%. In addition, 15-year-olds in the region were three years behind their Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) peers in reading, mathematics, and science, according to the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) in 2018, the latest available figures. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay all participated in the assessment, but only Peru, Chile, and Colombia had improved by this measure between 2000 and 2018, and learning results had “largely stagnated” in the rest of the region, said the World Bank.

As the chart shows, half of Latin American 15-year-olds do not achieve minimum proficiency in reading. The chart shows results for PISA 2018 as well as the 2017 PISA for Development (PISA-D), which included Honduras, Guatemala, Paraguay, and Ecuador. Chile, Uruguay, and Costa Rica are the best performing countries, while Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Guatemala are the worst ranked of those listed.

Pandemic impact

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, LAC has seen longer uninterrupted school closures than any other world region, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), with schools shut for an average of 158 days from March 2020 to February 2021. This compares unfavourably to a global average of 95 days, added the bank, which said that LAC countries represent 11 of the 20 nations around the world with the longest school closures. More than 40% of parents in Bolivia and Colombia reported that their children could not take part in educational activities due to a lack of an internet connection or a computer, tablet, or smartphone, reports the IDB, which also found that in large countries, such as Mexico and Brazil, 43-50% of students aged six to 23 did not take part in any learning activities or interact with their teachers when schools were closed. This constitutes the “largest disruption of learning in the region’s modern history”, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), which has been tracking the number of children out of the classroom.

On the 16th of September 2021 Unicef reported that there were 86 million children who still weren’t back in school, while at least 47 million had gone back to in-person learning. The effects of the pandemic were felt harder among less wealthy households, which were generally less able to adapt to remote learning. More girls than boys in secondary school missed at least 75% of classroom time in 2020, said the bank, and school closures increased the risk of gender-based violence, early pregnancy, and abuse.

It was easy for politicians to demand that classes go online but many public schools in the region were poorly equipped to deal with the demands of the pandemic. “Many Latin American students and teachers have been unable to adapt to remote learning. School closures exposed the gap, known as the digital divide, between those who are better connected - generally wealthier, urban populations - and those who aren’t - more likely disadvantaged, rural populations. The effects of this lack of connectivity were worsened by the lack of integration of digital tools in the education system in many countries, where authorities have scrambled to build distance learning programs from scratch. A lack of digital skills among both teachers and students has left many struggling to make use of the tools which have been made available. These effects have compounded Latin America’s pre-existing education gap, which broadly reflects economic inequality in the world’s most unequal region.

The World Bank warns: “The region is on a path to experience significant learning losses, potentially jeopardising the education outcomes of an entire generation of students and deepening the existing learning crisis”. It believes the impact of Covid-19 could take education systems in the region back to the 1960s. Not only does this impact learning outcomes in the present, it could also have serious knock-on effects for future economic growth as the region’s human capital takes a hit. Too many Latin American children have suffered shocking educational losses as a result of the pandemic, and they risk becoming a lost generation unless action is taken.