COVID-19 and the big bet of learning from home: will it work for everyone?

Without classes, without teachers, without friends, without games and without that daily routine that all children were used to. Now every day seems the same, and it is that the health crisis has significantly altered our day to day. What’s more, this has been a radical change for all students in Latin America and the Caribbean, not just being at home all day, but trying to learn from somewhere other than school.

In the region, primary education coverage is practically universal, which means that all children between the ages of 6 and 12 attend school regularly. In preschool and secondary school, although coverage is lower, 8 out of 10 children and young people attend an educational center (see CIMA ). Today, the pandemic has disrupted education systems: almost all schools in Latin America and the Caribbean are closed. More than 165 million students of all educational levels are at home [i] . Therefore, they must learn from home: with whatever tools they have, with the support of their parents, and with limited help from teachers.

We still do not know the date on which we will resume face-to-face classes. Faced with this uncertainty, the Ministries of Education in Latin America and the Caribbean have deployed a huge contingent to: inform the educational community about the health crisis, provide social assistance, provide resources and provide distance education alternatives.

Reaching the largest possible proportion of students with pedagogical content is the greatest management challenge facing countries in this scenario, and the big bet is that the teaching and learning processes somehow continue from home .

In the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean, different distance education channels have been combined as an immediate response to deliver content to students, including digital platforms, television, radio, and printed material.

How much can we expect from these strategies to ensure learning during and even after the emergency? The data tells us that, not in all countries and not for all students, solutions can work equally.

When considering digital platforms, which are tools that allow interaction and monitoring of learning in real time, two aspects emerge. One is that the development and successful implementation of any digital solution is a demanding process. Before the emergency, many countries did not have the basic digital conditions to provide online education ( see CIMA Note ), much less now when the ministries of education are not operating in their regular capacity. The second aspect is that these tools hardly reach the most vulnerable populations. Studies in primary and secondary education have shown the low incorporation of digital tools in the teaching and learning processes.

Furthermore, the inequity in access to technology, connectivity and digital resources shows that the majority of students in the region do not have the technological conditions to learn online from home ( see Note CIMA ). For example, in Latin America less than 30% of the most vulnerable households have access to a home computer for school work. In addition, the internet is one of the requirements for online learning solutions, but very few countries in the region have widespread access.

As for teachers, familiarity with digital resources in the region has been historically low ( TALIS ). Less than 60% of secondary school teachers have technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices into instruction ( see CIMA Note ). Schools in more vulnerable contexts have teachers least prepared to integrate digital devices into instruction (55%), compared to 68% of schools with more favored environments.

Socio-economic gaps also influence the support that parents can offer in their children’s learning from home. Although parents play a key role, in most countries, parents who come from more favored backgrounds (with higher socioeconomic status) are more involved with student learning and progress ( see Note CIMA ). To this is added the conditions of economic, social and emotional instability that families face during the emergency, which can influence the support provided by parents at home.

Education in the region has been characterized by inequity in access and by the results in low, unequal and not very relevant learning ( see Note PISA ). The gaps were already very wide even before COVID-19 . In Latin America, learning differences between students from vulnerable and favored contexts are equivalent to more than 2 years of schooling (363 vs. 464 points in reading, PISA-2018) (see CIMA ) [ii] . The role of the school as an institution to equalize learning opportunities has been disrupted. For this reason, the efforts made by the Ministries of Education to prevent the gaps from widening much more during and after the health emergency are very important.. Analog channels and print media have made it possible to reach the most vulnerable. However, the role of teachers and parents is now more important than ever for the accompaniment and monitoring of students, especially those who need it most.

While in Uruguay the reopening of schools has already begun with the gradual incorporation of students in low-risk rural areas, the date seems uncertain in the rest of the countries. Countries that are at the end of their school calendars, such as the Dominican Republic , are considering ending the school year [iii] . Those at the beginning of cycle [iv] do not yet have an estimated reopening date. Everything indicates that countries should plan to continue distance education models during 2020. It is not yet known when it will be safe to reduce social distancing and open schools safely. ThusIt is essential that these distance education resources that were arranged as a rapid response to the emergency are seen as effective learning alternatives, even after the emergency .

We live in times of great uncertainty, where the questions are more than the answers we can provide. There is a possibility that learning gaps in the region will widen. Scenarios are planned and impacts are estimated, while uncertainty continues. However, the emergency will pass and education must continue, to ensure learning for all students . For this reason, it is essential that countries plan and reflect now on what comes next, once the emergency ends and education systems have to face major challenges, such as the economic and social challenges that the COVID-19 crisis will leave behind.

Will we be able to learn from home? Will the countries be capable of generating policies and plans that make it possible to reverse or minimize the effect of the crisis on the learning of students from the most vulnerable contexts?

[i] UNESCO Institute for Statistics, 2020. It counts the data available to date for 26 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

[ii] In PISA, on average in all countries the difference between adjacent grade scores is approximately 40 points. For more information, refer to the report: OECD (2019), PISA 2018 Results (Volume I): What Students Know and Can Do.pp. 44.

[iii] Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Guyana, Haiti, Jamaica, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Suriname, Trinidad and Tobago, and Venezuela.

[iv] Bolivia, Argentina, Costa Rica, Colombia, Brazil, El Salvador, Peru, Chile, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, Uruguay, Nicaragua and Panama