Pandemic Opens an Opportunity to Restructure Education Systems in Region and Tackle “Silent Crisis”

Alicia Bárcena, Executive Secretary of ECLAC, stressed that the impact of the health crisis on children and youth has been multidimensional and unequal. More than 600,000 children and adolescents have lost their caretakers, and 99% of students in the region spent an entire academic year without face-to-face classes.

  • The COVID-19 pandemic opens an opportunity to rethink and restructure education systems in Latin America and the Caribbean, and tackle the profound “silent crisis” that this sector is going through so as to prevent a generational catastrophe, agreed the specialists participating in the First Regional Seminar on Social Development. Education in Latin America and the Caribbean: The prolonged crisis as an opportunity for restructuring, organized by ECLAC in collaboration with UNICEF/LACRO, OREALC/UNESCO, IIEP UNESCO Buenos Aires and with financial support from Norway.

    The seminar was opened by ECLAC’s Executive Secretary, Alicia Bárcena; Jean Gough, Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund Regional Office for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNICEF/LACRO); Claudia Uribe, Director of the Regional Education Office for Latin America and the Caribbean of the UN Office for Education, Science and Culture (OREALC/UNESCO); Pablo Cevallos Estarellas, Director of the Latin America Office of the International Institute for Educational Planning Buenos Aires (IIEP Buenos Aires); and Jostein Leiro, Norwegian Ambassador to Chile, with moderation by Alberto Arenas de Mesa, Director of ECLAC’s Social Development Division.

    “Education has not been at the center of the public policy agenda debate to confront the prolonged COVID-19 crisis and Latin America and the Caribbean’s recovery,” lamented Alicia Bárcena in her opening remarks. This, despite the fact that, as of May this year, 99% of students in the region had experienced a total or partial interruption of face-to-face classes, equivalent to one academic year, due to the control measures related to the health crisis.

    “It is urgent that we promote the gradual and safe return to schools in broad coordination with the health sector. Returning to school is of the utmost importance, especially for the most at-risk sectors. Schools play a role of protection and monitoring that reaches far beyond academic purposes; they provide socialization, health and prevention of violence,” emphasized ECLAC’s Executive Secretary.

    Bárcena warned that “the lack of continuity of classes or virtual access to those same ongoing classes, on top of the economic crisis affecting household income, threaten to increase the risk of school dropout and child labor, generating setbacks in learning processes, deepening existing gaps and causing what we have called a silent crisis.”

    “Today, 20 months after the beginning of the pandemic, the total or partial closure of schools continues to affect two out of three children and adolescents in Latin America and the Caribbean. This means that a total of 86 million students remain out of school,” warned Jean Gough, Regional Director of UNICEF/LACRO. “We are facing the worst education crisis in the history of Latin America and the Caribbean. The cost is overwhelming for children and adolescents and for the future productivity of the countries,” she underlined.

    Claudia Uribe, Regional Director of OREALC/UNESCO, gave thanks for the opportunity to participate in the seminar, stressing that “education plays a central role and must have one in the recovery of these countries in order for them to overcome the economic and social crisis caused by the COVID-19 health crisis, and also to set the foundations for a transformation of people and society toward more equitable and sustainable development schemes for our region.”

    “The health crisis has left us at the brink of a true generational catastrophe, because it has deepened already existing educational disparities,” agreed Pablo Cevallos Estarellas, Director of IIEP UNESCO Buenos Aires. “Although the precise effects of this crisis are still not known, it is very likely that we will see a slowdown in progress toward compliance with the 2030 education agenda,” he acknowledged.

    Jostein Leiro, Norwegian Ambassador to Chile, underscored that “the pandemic has provided us with new knowledge as to what works and what doesn’t in education” and “poses an opportunity that we cannot miss when it comes to protecting and driving investment in public education aimed at attaining improved learning and an education system that is more resilient and responsive to students’ needs. In summary: build back better in the education sector, too.”

    After opening the seminar, Alicia Bárcena gave a presentation on the health and social crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean, the impacts observed in children, adolescents and youth during the pandemic, and the challenges and opportunities for restructuring education in the region.

    “The impact of the pandemic on children, adolescents and youth has been multidimensional and unequal,” sustained Bárcena, noting that more than 600,000 children and adolescents have lost their caretakers due to the pandemic.

    It is estimated that 3.1 million young people and children could drop out of school in the region due to the crisis, and that over 300,000 children and adolescents could be forced to go to work. An increase is also foreseen of the double burden of malnutrition (undernutrition and overweight) in childhood, in addition to the negative effects on mental health.

    According to ECLAC’s figures, nearly half of children and adolescents live in poverty in Latin America (51.3% in 2020), equivalent to 91 million people. Likewise, estimates previous to the pandemic put the prevalence of physical aggression in childrearing in the region at 55% and 48% for psychological aggression.

    Bárcena called for “investing in education to put an end to the perverse cycle of vulnerability and exclusion” that affects children and adolescents in the region, underlining that mandatory school has meant progress, but this alone does not guarantee the right to education. We must make progress in quality and universal digital access: 33% of children and adolescents (between ages 5 and 20) in 10 countries in the region were living in homes without internet access in 2019.

    “In the past 20 years the region has made major progress in the proportion of young people finishing some education cycle. But the advances are unequal and the gaps are especially evident as of secondary school. The difference when it comes to completing secondary school among students from the wealthiest quintile compared to the poorest was 46 percentage points in 2019. And the rates of completion of higher education are nearly nil (between 2% and 4%) in the population of young people aged 25-29 from lower-income households,” she explained.

    “Education is not solved in education alone, it requires intersectoral efforts that tie educational opportunities to other policies of social inclusion and economic recovery,” underscored Bárcena. “We have to establish actions that respond to the urgency of this silent crisis and ensure the required funding and commitment from all sectors. We cannot risk a lost generation,” she concluded.

    A series of studies done in by ECLAC 2019 on secondary school Latin America, with support from IIEP UNESCO Buenos Aires and in cooperation with Norway and joined by UNICEF in 2020, will be presented over the course of the three-day seminar. These include a regional report and six national studies (Argentina, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Honduras, Mexico and Uruguay).

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