By Fr. Benedict Mayaki, SJ
School closures, either total or partial, owing to the ongoing health emergency currently leave approximately 114 million students in Latin America and the Caribbean without face-to-face school, according to UNICEF.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the UN Children’s fund said that one year after the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, the Caribbean and Latin America remain the region with the largest number of children missing out on in-person classes in the world.
Covid-19 and school disruptions
In spite of government efforts to ensure continuity of education through virtual platforms, and educational initiatives on radio and television, school disruptions are raising growing concerns about the impact on learning achievements, protection, mental health and the socio-economic prospects of children in the future.
According to UNICEF’s estimates, only seven countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have fully reopened their schools with the resulting effect that children in these two regions have lost 158 school days of face-to-face school on average. In twelve countries of the region, schools remain fully closed and, in the others, classrooms are partially closed.
“Nowhere else in the world so many children are currently left without face-to-face schooling,” said Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “This is the worst education crisis Latin America and the Caribbean has ever faced in its modern history.”
“Many children have already lost one year of face-to-face schooling; now they started to lose another school year. Each additional day without face-to-face schooling puts the most vulnerable children at risk of dropping out of school forever,” she warned.
Damaging impact on childrens’ education
During school closures, UNICEF has supported educational support through the provision of distance programs which have benefitted about 45 million students in 24 countries in the region. 9 million children, parents and primary caregivers have also received mental health and psychosocial support.
However, the UN Children’s Fund is concerned that the longer children remain out of school, the less likely they are to return, as an estimated 3 million children in the region are at risk of permanently dropping out because of the pandemic.
Even before the pandemic, many students did not reach basic levels of math, reading and writing skills in elementary and middle school, the statement explained. In fact, a World Bank report indicates that 71 percent of students in Latin America and the Caribbean in lower secondary education may not be able to understand a text of moderate length. Before the pandemic, the figure was 55 percent. The World Bank worries that the number could rise to 77 percent if schools are closed for three more months.
Appeal to governments
While recognizing the efforts of education authorities and governments to mitigate the risks inherent to school disruptions and its impact on children, UNICEF insists that distance learning programs should be continued and scaled-up to reach more children. However, it notes, these will never be a substitute for face-to-face learning in a classroom with a teacher, especially for the most vulnerable children.
“We are not asking for all schools to reopen everywhere at the same time; we are asking for schools to be the first to open and the last to close. Several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have made great progress in prioritizing an urgent and gradual school reopening; now it’s time for others to follow the same path across the region,” added Jean Gough.
UNICEF also welcomed a recent decision of the Ministers of Education from Central America and the Dominican Republic to prioritize the gradual reopening of schools, and called on other authorities in the region to make moves in the same direction.