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Reopening schools in Latin America and the Caribbean: key points, challenges, and dilemmas to plan a safe return to in-person classes

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IDB-UNESCO: Gaps in education systems will be exacerbated if education is not prioritized within pandemic response plans

  • A report issued by the InterAmerican Development Bank (IDB) and the Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC/UNESCO Santiago) warns of the unequal access to human and economic resources, infrastructure and educational equipment in the region, which have been aggravated by the pandemic.
  • These structural conditions affect the implementation of the recommendations issued by international organizations on the appropriate processes for school reopenings, and impact upon the right to education of millions of students in the region.

"The region has an urgent need to plan and define priority actions to guarantee the safety of school operations and educational attention to the most vulnerable populations". This is the conclusion of the IDB and UNESCO report "Reopening Schools in Latin America and the Caribbean: Keys, challenges and dilemmas to plan for a safe return to in-person classes". The report was launched by both international organizations on Monday, December 7th, 2020 at an online event. The English version is available since January 20th.

The document presents an assessment developed by both institutions as a contribution to the prioritization of education in national response plans to the health emergency and future recovery strategies. "Countries have deployed various response and recovery plans in which education needs to be incorporated as a central element," the report says, "not only to ensure an education response, but to achieve an equitable, inclusive and sustainable recovery”.

The report points out inequality increases the challenge of developing an education strategy that integrates educational experiences of 2020 - and that recovery of students who have not returned to school will be difficult. For this reason, the document also calls for regional action ensuring that all educational responses are based on the fundamental principles of inclusion, equity, and non-discrimination. To this end, the report analyses the possibilities, restrictions and needs that Latin American and Caribbean countries will face during the process of returning to in-person classes, considering the following dimensions: safe schools (school infrastructure, access to water and sanitation); human resources (principals and teachers); remote education (access to ICT and connectivity; education financing; and information and planning.

In their conclusions, both organizations indicate that the responses that the countries have implemented to guarantee continuity of learning reflect a remarkable capacity to react to an uncertain scenario, but that there are difficult decisions to be taken as soon as possible, as the longer the return to in-person classes is delayed, exclusion will grow and inequalities will increase.

Within these decisions, UNESCO and the IDB call for investments to improve the state of school infrastructure to ensure conditions for basic sanitation and hygiene. They also call for careful planning of the demand and supply of teachers for the return to classes and emphasize the urgent need to improve policies on teacher training, availability, allocation and working conditions.

In terms of information and communication technology (ICT) and learning continuity during the pandemic, the report emphasizes inequalities among students in access to educational options in terms of technology during a pandemic and the enormous challenge for educational continuity, especially in rural areas. This period has also highlighted disparities in teachers' ICT skills, which require sustained policies that transcend the crisis.

With regard to education financing, the IDB and UNESCO state that the recovery of the education sector will require additional resources, as well as improving their distribution. Huge inequalities highlight the need to incorporate equity criteria and the prioritization of vulnerable populations.

In order to build more comprehensive education systems that will allow dealing with crises such as this one, it is also essential to modernize the collection and analysis of information and to make these systems more efficient Currently, there are marked gaps in comparable data from all countries on key indicators for planning the return to in-person classes. In many cases these gaps reflect basic information that is not available at the national level.

Sabine Riegle-Aubourg, Director (a.i.) of the Education Division at the IDB says this report is "a wake-up call about the urgent need for careful education policy planning. The ability of countries to define priority actions to ensure safe school operations and prioritize education for the most vulnerable populations will be key. In order to do this and to avoid a generational disaster, education funding must be protected”.

"This diagnosis gives an account of the challenges faced by the education systems in the region, which have been deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic. This is why today, more than ever, we must maintain our commitments for the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development and its Goal 4. Adequate, timely and efficient investment will be crucial to reducing the current and future impacts of the pandemic on education and to avoid a generational catastrophe".

Claudia Uribe, Director of the Regional Bureau for Education in LAC (OREALC/UNESCO Santiago)

Even before the sanitary emergency, education systems faced major challenges. In 2018, 10.5 million children were out of school in Latin America and the Caribbean, 16% of them outside primary education, 22% without lower secondary education and 62% without upper secondary education. In addition, a large number of students in the region do not achieve basic learning competencies according to the results of PISA (OECD) and the Third Regional Comparative and Explanatory Study (TERCE), implemented by UNESCO.

The conclusions

Safe schools (school infrastructure, access to water and sanitation)

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed structural shortcomings in school infrastructure.

Most schools in LAC countries do not have the classroom size conditions that allow for the enforcement of the physical distance protocols for a safe return to in-person classes for every student. Around 1.3 million students at the primary level do not have access to drinking water in their households nor in school. It is urgent that LAC countries invest in the improvement of the state of school infrastructure to offer basic sanitation and hygiene conditions.

Human resources (principals and teachers)

Constraints on the return to in-person classes for some teachers and the implementation of hybrid models will require the need to hire new teachers. However, even before the pandemic, many countries already faced a shortage in trained staff to cover the education needs of the population. The region needs to plan the supply and demand of teachers carefully in order to return to in-person classes; the pandemic has brought to light the urgent need to improve training, availability, allocation and working condition policies for teachers.

Remote education (access to ICT and connectivity)

The most utilized resource in the region for remote and hybrid education are online platforms, employed by 85% of countries. However, access to connectivity and technological resources in households and in schools are deficient: 46% of children between 5 and 12 years of age live in households without Internet connection. In terms of schools, 62% of primary schools and 75% of secondary schools have access to ICT equipment. This represents a huge challenge for learning continuity, especially in rural areas. The pandemic has highlighted the disparities in ICT competencies among teachers, this requiring sustained training policies that go beyond the urgency of the current situation.

Education Financing

The recovery of the education sector will require additional financial resources and better distribution. The large inequalities highlight the need to include criteria of equity and prioritization of vulnerable population in plans to return to in-person classes for students currently out of school. In this sense, education financing as well as fair and efficient resource allocation are key to respond to this crisis and to guarantee the right to quality education for everyone.

Information and planning

Ministries of education require strong education management information systems (EMIS) that allow for the planning, development, and management of these strategies. 42% of LAC countries still use physical formats (such as paper forms) completely or partially to gather data. The EMIS of the region need to be strengthened through the use of technologies to collect and analyze data more effeciently, allowing ministries to build a more comprehensive picture of their education systems to deal better with crises.

Further information:

Public information / Contact:

Carolina Jerez Henríquez
Knowledge Management Section (KMS)
Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean
c.jerez@unesco.org(link sends e-mail), +56992890175