A closed private school in Brasilia. (AP)

A school in Brasilia. (AP)

LatAm Focus: The Good and Bad of COVID-19’s Education Disruption

By Luisa Leme

The pandemic undercuts Latin America’s educational advances, but highlights innovations, too. Brookings’ Emiliana Vegas and Tinker Foundation’s Caroline Kronley explain.

This year, many of us faced an unexpected task: figuring out how to teach our children. After all, in April, 91 percent of the world’s students felt the effects of school closures due to the pandemic. Per UNESCO, some 160 million students in Latin America had stopped having in-person classes as of May, and two-thirds still weren’t in classes come October, leaving many without classes, meals, and the safe havens schools often provide.

The consequences of such a disruption spell long-term challenges for the region’s human capital development and productivity. Moreover, there’s the problem of growing inequality between poor and rich students and, despite reaching near-universal access to primary education, the fact that Latin American countries rank in the bottom third of the OECD’s assessment program, better known as the PISA.

“There is a big concern that, on average, our students are underperforming,” says Emiliana Vegas, senior fellow and co-director of the Center for Universal Education at Brookings Institution. “In some countries, like the Dominican Republic, 80 percent of 15 year olds who are in school were not achieving their basic levels of math and language and science knowledge.”

“Out of Covid, we will come out with teachers that are much less afraid than in the past to innovate.” — Emiliana Vegas

In a conversation with AS/COA Online’s Luisa Leme, Vegas outlined the region’s educational challenges pre- and post-pandemic and noted the potential for new learning techniques to emerge from the current crisis. She and her colleagues have packaged these opportunities into an idea called the “Powered-Up” school, which takes into account “the diversity of learning styles, leverages technology to help the work of teachers, helps them provide more personalized instruction, helps them scale-up quality instruction,” she says.

Despite the setbacks, many educators or learning to adapt or try new approaches, as Tinker Foundation President Caroline Kronley explains. Tinker launched a grant application for educational initiatives in Latin America amid the pandemic in June 2020. and witnesses examples of these innovations taking root in the region, whether it’s delivering letters via a boat circuit between students and teachers in Peru’s Amazonas region to inspiring children with Afro-Colombian cultural traditions in Colombia’s El Choco region.

Both guests highlighted a newfound appreciation for the role of teacher as a silver lining taking hold in society. “Some of us who have been trying to teach our children at home appreciate even more the skill and special characteristics that are involved in being a good teacher,” commented Kronley, “and I certainly hope that in all of our countries, we value teachers more and invest in their professional development and success.”

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Elizabeth Gonzalez produced this episode. The music in this podcast was performed at Americas Society in New York. Learn more about upcoming concerts at musicoftheamericas.org.