Educational Gaps During the Pandemic: The Persistent Challenge of Access to Learning for All

Education

This article raises issues concerning the future of remote and socially distanced education, proposing strategies to ensure equal, safe access for all children. The Pandemic underscores disparities in the educational system, forcing in-person classroom closure and a continuation of remote learning. Around the world, schools are preparing for a return to classes. The greatest challenge facing schools now is how to ensure that students return to class with access to all necessary learning tools.


Introduction

In the world of Covid-19 2020, remote education is the most viable strategy for schooling. During the first few months of the year, a state of sanitary emergency was declared throughout most of Latin America. Classes were suspended, without accurate predictions as to how long the suspension would last. The halt in the educational system was considered temporary. However, due to the changing nature of the Coronavirus and the impossibility of adapting educational systems to social distancing standards, remote education continues.

According to a UNESCO report[1] on monitoring education since mid-August, the majority of Latin American Schools either closed or were only partially open. As stated by Equity for Children in its post of April 2020, entitled Remote Learning Creates Increased Inequality for Latin American Boys and Girls, the suddenness of Covid-19 caused schools to transform homes into classrooms. Online classes used video, other virtual resources, parents and caretakers to teach what the classroom had previously provided. Until now, few schools have rethought teaching methods to fit the current virtual structure. Student assessments have been based primarily on mandatory assignments instead of on exams that were too complex to administer and complete.

Recently, educational authorities have been asked to set a date for a return to school. In order to answer that question, attention must be paid to the following:

  • How has isolation impacted infants and adolescents? 
  • What actions have been taken to lessen inequality for students who cannot access the technology they need to learn?
  • How can educators use the situation of the pandemic to create new educational opportunities that equally benefit all students?

Digital Gaps and Educational Inequality

During the pandemic, inequality has increased the resource differential between the haves and have nots in Latin America. The educational system faces a profound differential between what the current school system delivers and the harsh socioeconomic reality that many students endure. With a goal of establishing common, basic content that all children can avail themselves of, there are several educational aspects that must be addressed as well.


One key conclusion is that the state to facilitate a universalization of technological tools for use by all. The scale of this task implies a massive deployment of resources. Some government initiatives have sought to democratize technologies and narrow the digital divide already. This will require multi-level strategies and maintaining an infrastructure to reap maximum benefits from the tools. Such programs are clear first steps to address the problem but they are not sufficient alone.

The rapid virtualization of educational content exposed the system’s flaws

  • The lack of educator training necessary to use these new tools and apply them pedagogically
  • The inherent inequality within the educational system of each country
  • The difference in access to technological equipment needed for virtual learning across families and children

The most serious divide is digital. According to data from the International Technological Union, a UN agency dedicated to gathering data on new technology and forms of communication, only 58.7 % of the global population has access to the internet. When statistically detailed, the inequality becomes more potent. More than 85% of the world’s internet access is found in developed areas such as the U.S. and Western Europe. Africa has less than 40% access in its poor areas. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 67% of inhabitants used the internet in 2019.

According to the latest CEPAL report[2], of April 2020: In Latin America and the Caribbean, the digital divide can be further broken down by country. A lack of connectivity is greater in countries such as Honduras (58 %) and Peru (60%), but much less in countries like Chile (22%) and Uruguay (17%). Some countries require more consideration due to their size. A 2019 UNESCO report highlighted that 42.1 million homes were connected to the internet, which equates to 61% of residences. However, in urban areas the connectivity is much higher, at 65%, than in rural areas at 34%.

Inequality among teachers causes an inherent disparity in the pedagogy to be deployed. In a recent webinar in Argentina, Torcauto di Tella’s Department of Education Researcher and Professor Claudia Romera argued that the lack of technological equipment in homes leads to the “Whatsappization” of education. In many countries, short texts and instructions are sent to students from teachers through the popular application. This makes synchronization between students and educators difficult and eliminates direct forms of exchange. The lack of daily accompaniment contributes to fewer emotional ties between students, and between students and teachers.

This problem of increased educational inequity during Covid-19 affects wealthy countries, too. In a webinar by Equity for Children in May, mothers and activists with direct experience of poverty talked with educators, practitioners and policymakers about the many ways in which remote learning exacerbates inequalities in New York City’s educational system and what can be done to improve the situation.

   
A New Virtual Mandate


“What can be observed today is a very interesting phenomenon: A revaluation of the role of school and the educator by the families, who quickly realized it was not an easy role. This happened on a worldwide level. In June, there were more than one billion students from 150 countries lacking face to face classes. The pandemic has further deepened the educational gaps, which are normally lessened in face to face classes. In order to have worthwhile education, it is not enough to just have a computer at home. Students also need a certain level of internet speed not everyone has”, said Silvina Gvirtz, expert on education and current Secretary of Science, Education and Educational Policies in the Matanza Municipality, Argentina’s most densely populated district.

Despite challenges, educators and families are extremely motivated to deliver better quality education for all. The leader of the Programa Conectar Igualdad in Argentina, which by 2015 had distributed 5. 3 million netbooks, says that 20% to 25% of children have access to learning through platforms that allow synchronization, even if the modalities require new pedagogical models. The challenge is overcoming obstacles for the 75 % of children still without access to these platforms.

Gvirtz also poses that homeschooling has its flaws: “Clearly, what can be taught is not the same as it could have been in the classroom. Within this context, education must be centered in four main types of literacy: reading, science, mathematics and digital information. The last should have an added dimension pertaining to socialization and coexistence, which require their own behavioral guidelines. The main issue I would add is what I call the “homework disease”, where students are loaded with projects to complete but no logic in what they should learn.”

The devices that students possess play a large part in their general quality of education. Lack of access to technology creates a digital divide. Students receiving only sporadic assignments and content are hugely disadvantaged compared to students with access to platforms that mandate daily check ins. Zoom vs Whatsapp appears to be the main divide among schooling during the pandemic. And the divide between the two will most likely contribute most to students’ returning to school or dropping out.  

Explains Nestor Lopez, Research Coordinator of UNESCO’s Educational Policy, Planning and Management Section, about educators’ reactions at the start of Covid-19: “In all cases there was an effort to maintain classes. The first response was digital, trying to teach through web platforms. But for sectors removed from internet connectivity there were two other responses. The first was to increase televised educational content and the other was to send students printed materials. These three methods were aimed to three distinct levels: Digital education was for the most connected. Radio and television were aimed at the immediate rural school population. And printed materials addressed the most removed students. In some countries, these three methods resulted in vastly different learning experiences and educational quality. In other countries, the approaches appealed to a common audience where the results were better. I believe that these efforts and commitments are very praiseworthy. The divide present in schooling today says more about the state of schooling before the pandemic than the efforts of educators as a reaction to it”.

School closures clearly reflected the difficulty of reaching students through remote learning. There is a general consensus among educational authorities that children should not lose a school year. Any form of contact with students, however imperfect, is a priority. As much as possible, there is general consensus not to overwork students and to disseminate content through personal contact. Testing students is extremely difficult under the present conditions. The incentives to abandon schooling are growing, perhaps due to a lack of consequences or personal attention that are associated with the world of remote learning. 

No one can underestimate the challenges that exist providing schooling in atypical situations. Lopez summarizes it as follows: “There is not only a technological and accessibility problem. Rather, the problem lies in generating a teaching method that forces students to maintain contact with teachers, and not lose contact with their education as a whole.” 

Adds Leonardo Garnier, the ex-Minister of Education for Costa Rica and the author on the subject of education: “In Costa Rica, we have observed many responses. First there was a push to protect the health of students and teachers and to eliminate in-person schooling. The second response was to try to minimize the damage to students with whatever tools we had at hand in remote learning. Here the crisis really hit the system, which was severely underprepared. The third response was to take advantage of the pandemic to strengthen the curriculum and remote education, and to develop teachers’ training for that”.


Garnier affirms that strengthening remote education is a top priority that could not take place at the start of the pandemic, when citizens were coping with constant uncertainty. Self-study guides were used as a primary tool for students to understand core concepts until such time as regular classes would resume. The idea now is to find out, through qualitative analysis, exactly what students will need to return to classes. The challenge is how to configure this return.

Returning to School and Transitioning to Higher Quality Learning for All  

Recently, the UN declared that governments should reopen schools to the extent that sanitary limitations allow. “Extending institutional closings could cause a ‘generational catastrophe’, since already 24 million students at all levels are in danger of dropping out, said General Secretary Antonio Gueterres in a recent statement, continuing: “We are living in a decisive moment for children and young adults throughout the world. The decisions taken today by governments will have a lasting effect on millions of children, as well as on the future developmental prospects of countries for decades”.  He highlighted that the pandemic has been the greatest disruption of education ever on a global scale. In this context, scheduling a school re-opening date creates multiple challenges. Some countries have established a return date already while others have not.

With approximately 900,000 students in the educational system of Costa Rica, for example, the challenges faced are on a different scale than those of much more populous countries.
Says Garnier: “One advantage of elementary education is that only one teacher is responsible for all subjects. We have been thinking of using the previous teacher of a class again for the next year as a way to maintain educational continuity. Using the same teacher will allow the school systems to better understand children’s educational arcs during the pandemic. De-motivation is less worrisome in elementary school. In high school, motivation is more complex because of subjects taught by different teachers. Fortunately, there is a lot of information about where students live so we can fetch them if necessary”. 


Will there be a change in students’ curricular content post-pandemic? For Gvirtz, a lot depends on whether the transition is successful or not. The function of density in crowded cities makes it harder to socially distance than in rural areas where fewer children attend ampler school buildings. The logistics of the return will be a challenge for all countries. To accommodate social distancing, alternative scenarios are likely. The frequency of return will be based on the location and capability of each school, combined with the evolution of the infection rate in a locality.  School space will face strains. Schools attended by the poorest students will be most affected. They already suffer most from being overcrowded and underresourced.

Many experts are asking how the Latin American educational system will be organized after the pandemic. Schools with no chance of adapting to Girvitz ‘ hybrid method could disappear or be condemned. Nestor Lopez observes that public school offerings were already lacking and that the private school sector is not growing. He adds: “Contrary to what is being said, there are only two countries where private education has been advancing greatly — Brazil and Peru. In the others, private education has been relatively stable, but what is odd is that private schools often have equal numbers of children from all social classes. About 15% of families from the poorest socioeconomic backgrounds choose private school for their children. This either means that public school is not an option for them or that the schools don’t meet the parents’ standards”. Lopez affirms that many public schools have resisted the pandemic most successfully, and will be the ones that will be able to return to classes most effectively.

“The first thing that must be done is to recognize that the loss of learning will be very severe, and is not something that will be recoverable in the short term,” 
Garnier states. He views teachers’ priority for the 2021 and 2022 school years as recovering learning that has been lost since the pandemic began.


Garnier advises: “Next year they will have to learn — or re-learn — critical information in mathematics and language, subjects characterized by incremental complexity that are impossible to advance in if the basics are not present.  The other thing will be to utilize technology to reduce inequality. If any positive can be reaped from the pandemic it will be to narrow the educational gap for the most disadvantaged using digital technology”.

Conclusion

There is no doubt that the global health emergency has worsened all prospects in the region. The poor have become poorer. Those outside the system have been condemned, nearly uniformly, to a worse condition than before. Educational inequality increased during the pandemic. Achievement gaps for students of all ages have widened considerably, with different perils in each age group. The pandemic has forced us is to rethink learning as a whole. We must prioritize competency in scientific reasoning, mathematical literacy and civic sense. A key objective is avoiding student disengagement, especially from adolescents and older children. A student who loses contact with the class and the teacher for an extended period of time is more likely to drop out. Retention, therefore, must be a highest goal of educational facilities and government policy.

Finally, the Pandemic has emphasized key players in the system. Teachers and classrooms have restored value. The house is not a school, and the school is not a second home. The school system has shown remarkable resilience and rapid innovation, including digitally. Schools have demonstrated, too, their importance as socio-educational and community-based centers. The new global approach demands a fresh look at all that schools provide, over and above book learning. School enhances vital human functions such as structured learning, social environments and nutritional centers. 

Equity for Children, August 2020. Text in Spanish by Roxana Mazzola, translation by Uri Guagnini.

This article was prepared to spur discussion at an Equidad Para La Infancia / Arcor Foundation- sponsored webinar on 8.26 that was attended by more than 100 people from 8 countries.


[1] 8.16.2020. https://es.unesco.org/fieldoffice/santiago/covid-19-education-alc/monitoreo

[2] CEPAL, COVID-19 Special Report, April 3, 2020. Available here.

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