Latin America’s Schools Are Flunking Covid

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Brazil’s college entrance exam is not for wimps. The yearly endurance test — eight hours of questions and essays over two days that can boost or bust careers — is a marathon of teenage aspirations, angst and energy drinks. And that was before the pandemic.

This year’s edition, which wrapped up on Sunday, has been a caveat about how unchecked Covid-19 has brought a whole new level of risk into already precarious Latin American classrooms. More than half of Brazil’s 5.7 million registered exam candidates — including my 16-year-old — stayed away, fearing contagion in the collective study halls. Many of those who showed up were turned away due to overbooking. At least Mexico’s National Autonomous University had the good sense to hold this week’s entry exam in a football stadium. Nonetheless, Brazil’s bullish Education Ministry declared the exam “a success.” My daughter saw a fool’s errand. “Why put yourself in danger of getting sick or spreading the virus?” she said.

With the new school year set to begin next month, most of Latin America is wrestling with similar doubts: How to keep students schooled and safe amid an incipient second wave of a pandemic that has cursed the region with four of the five worst death tolls in the developing world? Unless learning-challenged national authorities get their public policies straight — and there have been some inspiring local success stories — Brazil and its neighbors risk seeing another school year lost to fear, misinformation, illness and economic disruption.

Most countries of Central and South America and the Caribbean closed schools last March and kept them shut for an average of 174 days in 2020 — forfeiting four times more classroom hours than anywhere else, according to Unicef’s Latin American and Caribbean regional education advisor, Margarete Sachs-Israel. By the end of last year, 87% of the region’s 160 million students hadn’t seen a classroom for eight months.

The luckiest of the homebound students from well-heeled families logged on to remote classes through high-speed internet connections, but one of every two public school students had no internet access at all.

World Bank analysts reckoned that the accumulated loss to learning could delete up to $1.2 trillion in lifetime earnings from Latin America, or 20% of expected post-school income. Regional scores on the benchmark international PISA aptitude exam for 15-year-olds are also expected to plunge, with the share of students failing to meet minimum proficiency levels increasing to anywhere from 60% to 68%, compared with 53% before the pandemic.

Yet not all students will fall alike. The pandemic has never been an equal opportunity affliction; it has disproportionately sickened the poor, indigenous and people of color. Without a course correction, Tulane University economist Nora Lustig warns, the lopsided damage to learning will reverse decades of progress and leave lasting social scars.

Families led by better educated adults can assist their children with schoolwork or even enhance home learning through one-on-one tutoring, but parents with less formal education are often less prepared or absent due to work commitments. So even as students from high-education homes were only marginally affected by school shutdowns, their less advantaged peers reeled, racking up “instructional losses” of as much as 60% in Bolivia, El Salvador,  Mexico, Panama and Peru, Lustig found. Not even the most generous cash transfers to the most vulnerable groups compensated for the lacuna in learning brought on by school closings.

Judging by last year’s learning blackout, Lustig estimated that just 46% of Latin American secondary schoolers are likely to graduate, compared with 61% pre-pandemic. For students whose parents had less formal education, the outlook is dire; their probability of earning a high school diploma drops 20 points, from 52% to 32%in the post-pandemic, with current Brazilian high-school students 32% less likely to graduate. In the absence of corrective action, Lustig foresees Latin America squandering half a century in educational advances.

Such studies are projections, not prophecy: Officials can change course and avoid a reprise of last year’s disaster. The priority ought to be planning for safe school re-openings. Educators are encouraged by studies showing that schools are not known disease hotspots and that the risk of transmission beyond the classroom is probably low.

But none of that will matter unless public officials drop the damn-the-pathogens, full-speed-to-the-mall hype, and instead listen to educators and health authorities. “What you see in the region is pressure to open restaurants, bars, shops and car washes, but not schools,” said Sachs-Israel. “Schools have to be priority number one.”

Claudia Costin, a former World Bank senior director for education who runs the Getulio Vargas Foundation’s Center for Excellence and Innovation in Education Policies, foresees “a bumpy year.” “We are going to have school openings and closings, so we need decision-making based on transparency and science not partisan talking points,” she told me. “It’s a problem that part of our elected authorities still think that the pandemic is nonsense, with the Brazilian president [Jair Bolsonaro] leading the chorus.”

Ask Rio de Janeiro incoming education secretary Renan Ferreirinha, who took office Jan. 1 to find Latin America’s largest municipal school system — with 650,000 students and 34,000 educators — in shambles. The outgoing mayor, a onetime Bolsonaro ally who was arrested on corruption allegations days before leaving office, had failed to pay the internet provider and cleaning services, leaving Rio’s 1,543 public schools without web access or custodians on the eve of the new school year amid resurgent Covid-19.

The new mayor deputized a scientific committee to draw up safety protocols. “We aren’t denialists,” Ferreirinha told me. “We need to get back to school safely. Education is an investment in productivity and social progress.”

Latin American education is unlikely to return to some pre-pandemic state of innocence. Indeed, the global health emergency has simply accentuated the region’s longstanding learning disabilities, pocked by dragging proficiency and inequalities between students. Policy analysts are puzzling over how to compensate students hit hardest by education’s 2020 Covid crash, with initiatives ranging from hiring retired teachers to adding a full year to secondary school curricula. Given the folly and willfulness of the region’s sitting officials, Latin American school kids aren’t the only ones in need of remedial coursework.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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