A new ECLAC-UNESCO report entitled Education in the time of COVID-19 alerts the international community to the widening of pre-existing gaps due to the pandemic, both in terms of access as well as equity and quality – a situation that will especially affect those most vulnerable.
The disruption of the school year has represented an opportunity in terms of adaptation and innovation in teaching, which can entail enormous advances but also accentuate pre-existing educational gaps in the region between students in more vulnerable situations and those with greater advantages with regard to learning outcomes and other educational indicators, such as advancement and continued engagement in school, the document states.
The report prepared by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the Regional Bureau for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean (OREALC/UNESCO Santiago) emphasizes that the contraction in economic activity forecast for the region calls for urgently addressing the need to safeguard financing as a fundamental priority to protect national educational systems from the exacerbation of inequalities in access to education and of the learning crisis.
The situation is even more pressing because, according to UNESCO’s available figures on 25 countries in the region, educational spending would have increased by 3.6% between 2019 and 2020 without the pandemic. However, because of the economic contraction, the amount of resources available for education could fall by more than 9% in 2020 alone, with the real budgetary consequences coming to light in 2021.
The document stresses the urgency of calculating the costs of national educational systems and prioritizing spending, as well as ensuring the protection of education as a fundamental human right and harnessing the transformative potential of education, not only to build resilient systems but also to contribute to the social recovery. The study calls for particularly addressing the risk of dropping out of school among the groups most vulnerable to the effects of the pandemic and the consequent health, social and economic crisis.
Regional measures and emerging challenges
The report indicates that national education responses have allowed for identifying priority challenges when implementing measures to ensure educational continuity, equity and inclusion while face-to-face classes are suspended and during the process of reopening educational centers. These challenges are:
With regard to equity and inclusion, focusing on the most vulnerable and marginalized population groups – including indigenous peoples, the Afro-descendant population, refugees, displaced and migrant persons, the most socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, and people with disabilities – as well as on sexual and gender diversity. The pandemic has exposed the shortcomings in digital inclusion, and the report indicates that unequal access to online educational opportunities widens pre-existing gaps in access to information and knowledge, which hinders socialization and inclusion in general, in addition to the learning process that distance learning initiatives seek to provide. With regard to quality and relevance, focusing on improving the content of curricula (in relation to health and well-being in particular) and on specialized support for teachers, ensuring appropriate contractual and working conditions, teacher training for distance learning and the return to school, and socio-emotional support in order to work with students and their families.
In addition, the text indicates that the educational system’s challenges are related to preparedness for responding to crises, meaning the resilience and adaptation capacity of both educational systems and accompanying social services. For that reason, it stresses the need for interdisciplinary and intersectoral approaches; the strategies for returning to school and revitalizing educational processes require coordinating and articulating the planning and implementation of the educational sector with that of other sectors, particularly health, nutrition and social protection.
These challenges serve as a specific call to fulfill the right to education. That is why it is indispensable to have the resources needed for budget allocation and distribution, which will face a twofold effect from the crisis, according to an initial analysis by the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning (IIEP): there will be a significant impact from reduced investment in education throughout the crisis, as well as the resulting additional cost, while at the same time the financial resources available for the sector will decline.
Glimmers of hope along the way
The United Nations organizations describe in the document that the responses that numerous countries have put in effect have included innovative initiatives and promising practices, as well as important advances in record time to try to ensure educational continuity. In addition, it can be seen that national educational systems face systemic problems and challenges that require the implementation of medium and long-term strategies based on the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 4.
The text indicates that the current crisis has given new meaning to social ties and to rebuilding identities and the significance of citizenship, even in a global dimension.
In this scenario, it becomes essential to rethink education, its purpose and formats. It is necessary to reformulate content and the organization of learning in light of the lessons that the pandemic has already taught us: content that prepares students to understand reality and act in a responsible way and with solidarity, and formats that address diversity and uncertainty, beyond times of crisis.
As countries analyze the best way to tackle uncertainties and reopen their educational institutions safely, this crisis offers an unprecedented opportunity to boost the recovery capacity of national educational systems and to transform them into equitable and inclusive systems that contribute to fulfilling the collective commitment made in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.