In this article, we analyze how homeschooling and remote education highlight inequality. We look at the educational implications of the Covid-19 pandemic in Latin America and recommend thoughts and actions to lessen the adverse effects on children and adolescents.
The quarantine adopted in many countries affected by Covid-19 has forced families to seclude themselves and adopt new, unheard of practices. Home office and remote education are the new modes of operation. The impossibility of boys and girls attending class in person challenges the established pedagogical model and obliges families to assume a major role in their children’s education. What has commonly been offered by parents briefly, or amidst other activity in the home, is now undertaken with great dedication. Circumstances have dictated quick adaptation to available teaching methods, available technology and other actions to replace the typical, multi-hour school day.
For many students in Latin America today, attending school in person accomplishes an additional function that is equally, if not more, essential. Frequently, Latin American schools serve as guarantors of social formation and citizenship formation. One key role of educational institutions, for decades, is providing food for children who may not have access to adequate nutrition at home. This focuses us on the important interrelationship between education and social inequality [i] (López, Néstor, 2006).
Families often spend the largest proportion of their income to buy food and, in some cases, lack food security. In educational environments as well as social service settings, families often secure meals – particularly hot meals – for their children. Boys and girls attend school to consume calories that lead to optimal usage of their physical, psychological and mental capacity. Hunger means an empty, pained stomach. With pain, one cannot study and learn.
In this framework, let us analyze the Covid-19 pandemic emergency’s effect on education. Latin America faces dramatic impact — not yet because of the number of known affected people in the region, but because of the effect of pre-emptive governmental measures in the most vulnerable sectors.
Governments must respond rapidly to the pandemic as their top priority. This pandemic also obliges all citizens to make a humanitarian commitment to take care of one other, especially the infants, children and adolescents who are most affected by inequality.
Inequality Overtakes Home Education — Without Appropriate Intervention
In-person classroom space serves as the most important arena in which children are educated. Parents play an essential role in supporting curricula and learning.
Covid-19 obliged the suspension of classes and created a new challenge for families: assuming classroom learning as a priority in the home, and overseeing the process of pedagogical and curricular education of their children.
In many areas of the world where classes have been suspended, contingency plans have been launched to assist parents with this task. Some schools are sending materials, activities and homework so that children remain connected in structured ways. States are facilitating learning by providing educational programs, tools and digital applications to complete tasks.
International organizations such as UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and others are developing important messages and actions to prevent and control COVID-19 in schools and other educational centers. They are passing that information along, too, to parents, caregivers, community members, students and children.
These urgent and rapid changes in themselves imply a stratification in social logic: If electronic devices are the vehicle of communication for teachers and students, then homes without internet access or without the most elementary technological structure are isolated increasingly during this time. Even if these basic requirements are met, children without family assistance will have a learning disadvantage when compared with students who have parental assistance. The digital divide that imposes inequalities of access — due to fault of equipment, connectivity or training in the use of the technology — limits our ability to equalize the curricular education for all children.
If digital literacy is to the 21st century what actual literacy was to the 19th century, as Juan Carlos Tedesco (2012)[iii] postulates, the Covid-19 pandemic amplifies these divides. Intervention by each country is, therefore, indispensable to support a framework of integrated family care. (Martínez Rodríguez, 2008)[iv].
Progress thus far is shaky. It is extremely difficult, in a few days, to make up for a lack of long term policies that have addressed neither new learning models nor worldwide crises that disrupt traditional schooling.
Countries Respond to Remote Education as Best They Can – with Gaps
In Argentina, technological initiatives and digital outreach programs already exist. They consist of extensive fiber-
optic networks and students taught how to access technological devices remotely. However, these programs have focused mostly on urban areas. Confronted with the current pandemic, the government further supported virtual education once classes were suspended. Argentina’s plan, called “We Will Continue Educating”, includes programs, activities, interviews and other resources that reinforce the educational system.
Chile also strengthened its remote educational programs. The country’s technological platform, called “I Learn Online”, provides public/private schools and universities with formats designed to continue education at a distance.
Ecuador, one of the first countries in the region affected by Covid-19, decided quickly to suspend all classes for a set period. At the same time, it promoted virtual classes of basic education to accompany family education provided at home.
Many countries around the world adopted similar strategies. The U.S. also monitored the spread of the virus and suspended classes. This decision affects many others, such as how to exempt employees from their usual on-site work locations so they can provide child care in the home. The stratification between middle and upper classes begins to be seen more clearly in these circumstances. Families with paid childcare, and those without, have different approaches to their children’s education. Many parents were recently furloughed, laid off or not paid during the pandemic. Even working remotely with pay creates daily tension, with work demands competing with those of helping the child learn.
Remote learning requires systematic and ongoing training for teachers, students and students’ families. Ongoing information about the pandemic and contagion are needed. There are two aspects of family education we must differentiate between: Many families have children who, developmentally, can educate themselves with support from their parents and school. These children can study and learn in a way that is difficult but comparable to school learning. For younger learners, however, and special needs learners, structure is still needed and with additional guidance and follow up from parents. Attention spans, length of activities and individual learners’ needs must be taken into consideration always.
School Cafeterias: A Lifeline
In Latin America and the Caribbean, daily food needs are often provided by educational institutions that function as de facto feeding centers. According to UN [vi], 85 million students attend schools where food is served. For 10 million students, that is the most important and nutritious daily meal they eat each day. The organization has called for each country to guarantee that this food continue during isolation, so that the nutritional impact of the pandemic is minimized among those with most need.
The Argentine government has announced a special food distribution change, allowing the poorer to buy food and non-a
lcoholic beverages. The Social Services Department recently stated that the country has eight million people who receive food assistance, out of which three are minors who eat at schools or public soup kitchens. Budgets now have been allocated toward creating food distribution systems that incorporate social distancing [vii].
Brazil, a country with extremes of rich and poor, has the second-largest school lunch network worldwide, excluding India. Schools in Brazil traditionally function to help form positive eating habits, due to their extensive reach throughout the country. Currently, the Brazilian government has guaranteed the use of centers to feed massive numbers of boys and girls who use the services daily. However, for the moment, classes have only been suspended in some regions of the country.
On the other hand, Uruguay, the country in the region with the least inequalities, ordered the suspension of classes, and suspended school cafeteria use with the caveat that a program would be put in place to provide for students’ food needs while preventative pandemic measures last.
While those with economic resources can continue feeding their children, the poor depend on being a priority in the policy agenda to avoid neglect during a health emergency. The main challenge of countries in which children are fed in school is to minimize the impact of non-attendance on children’s daily food intake. In order for children to develop appropriate cognitive and physical development, it is essential that they not go hungry. The consequences of not providing emergency food for children can have a devastating effect.
In this regard, the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) has made a series of recommendations regarding actions to take during the pandemic:
- Distribute food to the most vulnerable families, establishing delivery times in schools or through mobile units
- Increase the economic allocations of social protection programs through initiatives such as income transfers, by an amount corresponding to the cost of food delivered by school cafeteria programs
- Deliver emergency, essential food rations to the most vulnerable communities and territories, in coordination with authorized government or international relief agencies
- Create tax exemptions on basic food purchases for families with school-age children, especially for workers in the most affected economic sectors
- Promote fresh food delivery to the home, from local agricultural sources if possible
- Redistribute food from school food programs through donations to entities responsible for providing food assistance, such as food banks, social organizations, non-governmental organizations and churches during the emergency response phase, under strict security protocols to prevent the virus’ spread
- Use digital tools such as geo-referenced applications to improve communication regarding access points for food deliveries, distribution times, recommendations for the proper use of food and measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19.
Source: Information available in the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) http://www.fao.org/americas/noticias/ver/pt/c/1266855/
The boys and girls most damaged by inequality should be a priority in the policy agenda. Daily, governments are taking measures to isolate confirmed cases and avoid the spread of the virus. Preventative measures recommended by WHO are beginning to take hold. The challenge from here will be to support the sectors most affected by isolation and to take preventive action so that lack of nutrition and wellbeing do not compound the virus’ direct effects.
Promoting Child Wellbeing During the Covid-19 Pandemic
A coalition entitled the Global Coalition to End Child Poverty has been formed between Equity for Children, Plan International, SPRI, OECD, Bristol University, World Vision, Save the Children and UNICEF among others was formed about two years ago to raise awareness, influence and to generate evidence about the impact of crises affecting children living with the experience of poverty, as well as to promote practices and policies that protect and care for infants and adolescents. Given the Covid-19 pandemic, the group is redoubling its efforts.
At Equidad para la Infancia and Equity for Children, we are focusing our work especially on disseminating educational guidelines and strategies for coping – physically, educationally and emotionally. We are developing a series of videos that explore families’ skills that help get them through this difficult time, and gathering information on approaches in Latin America that we will raise at the ATD 4th World Conference in November 2020.
Further, we are working to highlight:
- The role of social protections in the response to the crisis
- The mapping of the crisis’ impact on child poverty and on families of boys/girls who are vulnerable to poverty — multidimensional and monetary
- Programmatic recommendations and key messages about the virus that can be utilized by governments, the private sector and civil organizations
- Our existing work about girls during the crisis, as girls are experiencing increasing loss of control in their lives and increased disinformation, abuse and online exploitation
- An analysis of the impact of school closings on the educational system and learning.
We are considering the impact on different genders during the crisis. There are interventions that can be crucial in addressing the economic empowerment of adolescent girls, as well as of unpaid health care labor and domestic burdens for young women. We should note that the majority of health care workers on the front lines are women.
Equity for Children, March 2020, text written by Roxana Mazzola for Equidad para la Infancia
Translated by Uri Guagnini
[i] Please see López, Néstor (2006). Educación y desigualdad social. Buenos Aires: Ministerio de Educación, Ciencia y Tecnología de la Nación: Ministerio de Educación, Ciencia y Tecnología de la Nación. Available in http://www.bnm.me.gov.ar/giga1/documentos/EL005384.pdf
[ii] According to FAO, hunger is an uncomfortable or painful physical sensation, caused by insufficient intake of energy via food. It becomes chronic when the person does not consume the appropriate quantity of calories to conduct a normal, healthy and active life. See more in FAO http://www.fao.org/hunger/es/.
[iii] Tedesco, Juan Carlos (2012). “Una computadora por alumno”. In the series: “Especiales del mes” at the Red Latinoamericana de Portales Educativos (RELPE), OEI.
[iv] Martínez Franzoni, Juliana (2008). ¿Arañando bienestar? Trabajo remunerado, protección social y familias en América Central. Buenos Aires: CLACSO. Available athttp://biblioteca.clacso.edu.ar/gsdl/collect/clacso/index/assoc/D1179.dir/bienestar.pdf
[vi] “El cierre de los comedores escolares por el Coronavirus, un desafío para la alimentación en América Latina”, available at https://news.un.org/es/story/2020/03/1471332. 18 de marzo de 2020.
[vii] “Amplían la política alimentaria ante la cuarentena por el Coronavirus”, communique issued by the Ministerio de Desarrollo Social de la República Argentina, 20 de marzo de 2020. Available athttps://www.argentina.gob.ar/noticias/amplian-la-politica-alimentaria-ante-la-cuarentena-por-el-coronavirus
[viii] According to the World Bank, Brazil is the Latin American country with the highest income inequality. See https://datos.bancomundial.org/indicador/SI.POV.GINI
[ix] Newspaper El País, 21 de marzo de 2020. Available at https://www.elpais.com.uy/informacion/politica/cifra-infectados-virus-trepa-gobierno-pide-quedarse-casa-posible.html[x] It is paramount for the success of these initiatives to have clear and verified statistical databases. Cross-referencing data between ministries and coordinating institutional responses are critical to deploying resources effectively in each country.
[xi] In Brazil, local agriculture is closely connected with the school food supply chain. By contrast, in Argentina, Uruguay and many other countries, family-based agriculture does not have the extent or commercial reach necessary to supply the cafeterias where children receive food daily.