Nicolle Nicopa, a 15-year-old Peruvian teenager who wanted to be a nurse, had her dream cut short due to the pandemic.
Covid-19 took her father and, overwhelmed by the family’s financial needs, she left her virtual classes to dedicate herself to work and thus help her mother and her little brother. The pandemic changed the life of Nicolle and millions of students in the region like her.
A few days after the end of 2020, the balance for education in Latin America and the Caribbean is not encouraging: 87% of students have not received face-to-face classes during the last eight months. Schools have been closed in most countries since March. Its reopening must be a priority as the restrictions due to covid-19 are lifted.
When school is a memory: the dramatic reality of 97% of children in Latin America and the Caribbean
Beyond the learning gap that has occurred during this period, the World Food Program (WFP) estimates that around 85 million children in the region have not had access to school meals, thus increasing the risk of suffering. malnutrition.
Likewise, it is estimated that more than three million could drop out of school, for multiple reasons, including to dedicate themselves to work.
School feeding programs play a key role in social protection. It has been shown that, for households, the value of school meals is equivalent to approximately 10% of household income. For families with multiple children, that can mean substantial savings.
In cases of crisis, such as that of covid-19, this indirect income can contribute to the fact that households do not apply negative survival strategies, and a disincentive to school dropout.
The prolonged closure of educational centers has profound impacts on the lives of the youngest that go beyond a loss of learning and the increased risk, in particular of the most vulnerable, of dropping out of school.
For example, the lack of attendance at face-to-face classes and the less time devoted to learning, added to the loss of household income, configure conditions that increase the possibilities of the premature incorporation of children and adolescents into the labor market, particularly in activities dangerous.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimate an increase in child labor in the region during 2020 of up to 300,000 minors, showing a clear setback in efforts to eliminate this practice .
ECLAC has estimated that the pandemic will affect the incomes of all strata of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean , although the impact will be proportionally greater in the low, compared to those with middle and high income.
Poverty will increase by 45.4 million people and extreme poverty by 28.5 million, with a devastating impact on the region. In addition to the difficulties that the crisis generates for the labor reintegration of parents and, especially, the disproportionate effect on women and their participation in the labor market.
On the other hand, FAO reports that until before the pandemic, almost 60 million people in the region were affected by severe food insecurity . The data available on food consumption, nutritional surveys and projections on the increase in poverty in the region suggest a significant increase in hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition in the coming years, especially in rural areas.
In this context, to meet basic needs, such as food security, families can depend on children to supplement household income. The closure of educational centers in rural areas could result in them being employed in hazardous work activities in agriculture and other activities.
For UNESCO, the countries of the region face an unprecedented tension in terms of financial resources. At the same time that the demands to be met have increased, the difficult fiscal situation casts doubt on the availability of resources.
The first indications of the evolution of education budgets during 2020 do not indicate cuts, but there is no evidence that education has been prioritized by governments within the economic response packages to the emergency.
The signatory UN System agencies, concerned about the situation of education in the countries of the region, recognize the efforts made by governments and educational authorities that, together with partners and counterparts, work to mitigate the risks of interruption of education and its impact on children and adolescents.
However, the experience of recent months shows, in almost all countries, that distance education programs – online, radio or television – have widened the educational gaps between poor and rich families that already existed before the pandemic.
According to figures from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), only half of the pupils in public schools can access distance education, compared to three-quarters of those who study in private schools. The students who most need to continue learning are those who have the least opportunities to take advantage of access to distance classes.
After almost a school year without face-to-face classes, it is necessary for governments to prioritize the reopening of schools, addressing it as an integral part of reactivation policies, guided by public health considerations, guaranteeing the digital inclusion of all households.
The reopening process must be careful and prudent and include multisectoral mitigation strategies and biosafety and occupational health and safety protocols to protect not only students, but also teachers and other staff in the education sector, as well as families and the community.
Most of the children and adolescents in the region have already lost a year of face-to-face education. We cannot allow a second year to repeat itself under these same circumstances that have impacted their learning processes, nutrition and social-emotional well-being.
The coming weeks, in which governments make important decisions on budgets, calendars and back to school, are critical to ensuring that 2021 is not another year of disruption for students in the region.
Children in conditions of vulnerability are the ones who need school the most and are the ones who suffer the most. The longer they stay out of school, the greater the risk of falling behind in their learning with negative effects on educational outcomes, reduced schooling, and cognitive and social-emotional skills throughout their lives.
Each additional day that schools are closed will delay and hinder the economic recovery of the entire region. But it will also create cracks in society that will be difficult to resolve in the short term.
Every day that passes with schools closed increases the possibility of losing in a few months the equivalent of a decade of progress in the protection of children and adolescents.
Reopening schools should be prioritized as one of the first measures in the initial phase of the progressive reopening of society, not the last.