Back to school after the COVID-19 pandemic: why not 'back to the future'?
The Transforming Education Summit is a key initiative of Our Common Agenda which aims to mobilize action and leverage international political commitment, solidarity and solutions in favour of education as a preeminent public good and to recover the learning losses from the pandemic.
The ultimate goal of the Summit is to reimagine education and bring partners together towards the achievement of education-related Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
Below is an overview of the perspective of the Special Adviser of the UN Secretary-General for the Transforming Education Summit: Leonardo Garnier, originally from Costa Rica, as he explains the current crossroads in the field of education, with particular emphasis on the Latin American and Caribbean region.
As a strategic advisor of the Summit, he also shares a range of figures that demonstrate how the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the existing learning crisis and increased inequalities at all levels.
Giving education its rightful place
Where do we come from: the educational tragedy of a lost generation
During the third quarter of the 20th century, many Latin American countries made a big effort to increase the coverage of their education systems. However, even though the progress was significant, it also was insufficient and uneven, and was disrupted by the 1970s crisis in which production rates dropped, unemployment soared, and hyperinflation struck across almost the entire continent. These years of crisis and adjustment, austerity policies and cuts in public spending and investment were introduced, severely affecting educational investment, which plunged in absolute terms. This halted the advances in educational coverage of previous decades and, in some countries, even led to an educational relapse.
That is why, when asked why it has been so difficult to reduce poverty in Latin America or why it continues to be the most unequal region on the planet, you have to bring up the educational tragedy described above. If almost half of the young people in that specific time period did not go to school, then means that half of the workforce barely has primary school education. This is a lost generation, both educationally and productively. Without education, these people see their capacity to contribute to production growth and national income dwindling and their chances of improvement vanishing.
Quality and equity: the two great educational debts of the 21st century
Educational investment in Latin America began to recover slowly in the first decades of this century. The share of education spending within GDP and the spending per student improved, although both figures were still below pre-crisis levels. As a result, the net coverage rate in secondary education has increased in most Latin American countries. The same has happened with the secondary completion rate and tertiary education coverage. The percentage of the young population not attending school has also declined.
Although these improvements in coverage have been significant, the continent continues to suffer from two major educational challenges: equity and quality. On the one hand, despite the increase in coverage, educational opportunities in Latin America are very unequally distributed. For instance, rural families, lower-income families, families with lower levels of education and vulnerable populations – indigenous peoples in particular – continue to have much reduced and more difficult access to educational opportunities.
On the other hand, even those who do have access to the education system, their educational achievements are not high, as revealed in regional tests – such as LLECE (Latin American Laboratory for Assessment of the Quality of Education) – and international tests, such as PISA. At this point, we understand that the learning achievements of Latin American youth are far below those achieved in countries with more solid education systems. Moreover, the outcomes reflect the enormous internal inequality in our countries, with students of lower socioeconomic status displaying much more modest average value learning rates than those of higher income levels (although it is essential to mention that not even students of higher socioeconomic status in the continent achieve learning levels comparable to those of more educationally advanced countries).
It never rains, but it pours: the educational impact of the pandemic
It is precisely within these critical educational deficiencies that the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt. During the first trimester, face-to-face lessons were suspended and education came to a standstill worldwide. This forced closure not only caught education systems off guard but presented them with a seemingly almost impossible demand: to keep education alive while schools were closed, and implementing various forms of distance learning modalities for which they had never really prepared themselves.
Faced with this situation, education systems responded in different ways. The authorities reacted. Schools and their teacher communities reacted. Students and their families reacted. Across the region, a variety of distance education tools were set in place, from the use of emerging educational platforms to the use of tools that were at hand, such as WhatsApp and even going back to making photocopies, for the distribution of educational material, and relying on phone calls. These were among the quick fixes set in motion.
All these presented an additional challenge: how to tackle the unequal access to connectivity, equipment and educational resources. This new context also emphasized the unequal conditions in which students live and study at home, as well as the different types of support they can receive from their families.
Thus, despite all efforts, the pandemic has resulted in a tremendous educational loss. Much of the knowledge students should have acquired during the 2020 and 2021 school years was simply not achieved or was achieved in a very partial and uneven way. This has been the case all over the world.
According to a study by OECD, back in 2020, indications from several countries were already showing that many students received very poor instruction. For a high percentage of students, formal learning appears to have been almost non-existent. For example, the report mentions the early tracking figures pulled from an online mathematics teaching application implemented in several US-based school districts, which suggests that learning declined sharply during the crisis, especially in schools in low-income areas. In the same way, evidence from Germany shows that the time children spent on school activities was halved by the pandemic, with 38% of students spending no more than two hours a day studying and 74% spending less than four hours a day. Meanwhile, time spent on entertainment - watching television or playing games on computers or mobile phones – increased to more than five hours a day.
The pandemic in Latin America: a 20-year setback in education?
If the repercussions of the pandemic have been significant in countries with robust education systems, where families have a relatively high level of education and access to educational and technological resources, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the impact has been particularly tough and uneven in Latin America, affecting the rural parts of the region and those with fewer resources even more harshly.
It is estimated that, in low- and middle-income countries, the percentage of children unable to read and understand a simple text by the end of primary school could increase from 51% to 62% due to the pandemic. In addition, as measured by PISA international test scores, the proportion of lower secondary school children below the minimum achievement level could increase from its current level (55 per cent) to 71 per cent (World Bank, 2021).
A recent survey by UNICEF, UNESCO and the World Bank reveals that, of the low-income countries surveyed, only half of them have national or regional plans in place to make a quantitative evaluation of student learning; a quarter do not know how many students have returned to school after the pandemic; two-thirds of countries have implemented a shortened or prioritized version of the curriculum; and only 40% are implementing national learning recovery strategies.
We also know that the educational impact of the pandemic will also have long-term and worldwide economic consequences. It is estimated that, due to school closures, the current generation of students could lose up to the equivalent of US$17 billion in lifetime earnings at present value, representing 14% of current global GDP (World Bank, UNESCO and UNICEF, 2021 report).
In Latin America, this means that we face the risk of losing a significant part of the advancements in educational inclusion over the last twenty years. The pandemic – and its effects on household income – could lead to an increase in school dropouts and a fall in educational coverage, just as happened in the crisis of the 1980s. We must avoid this situation from unfolding: governments and education communities will have to use all the tools available to them to curb this increase in educational exclusion.
In addition, education authorities should promote strategies to ensure that educational centres can develop learning journeys that recognize the diversity of their students' experiences during the pandemic, prioritizing strategic learning and building on the previous educational achievements. In particular, additional support is required for those students who are furthest behind and most vulnerable to ensure they resume the pace of learning and avoid further educational exclusion.
Often, well-managed crises can become opportunities and levers for change. The COVID-19 pandemic is no exception. The pandemic has fast-tracked certain processes that were long overdue but still in need of further development. In this next phase, we will see how and under what circumstances we can turn this crisis into an opportunity to create the future that our education system so badly needs.
About Leonardo Garnier
In September 2022, Mr Leonardo Garnier took up the post as Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations for the Transforming Education Summit. Mr Garnier holds a bachelor's degree in Economic Science from the University of Costa Rica and a PhD in Economics from the New School for Social Research in New York. Mr Garnier is a Lecturer at the University of Costa Rica, where he has worked in the School of Economics and as a Researcher at the Institute of Economic Science Research. He has been a university professor since 1975 and has held several positions in the public sector in Costa Rica. He served as Costa Rica's Minister of Public Education and Minister of National Planning and Economic Policy. He has worked as a professor for the Central American Masters in Economic Policy at the International Centre for Economic Policy (CINPE) and as an advisor for the Víctor Sanabria Lectureship, both at the Universidad National de Costa Rica. He works as a consultant on matters related to economic policy, social policy and public management for various international organizations such as the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), the World Bank (IBRD), the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and, in particular, for the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF). He was a member of the Scientific Council of the Latin American Centre for Development Administration (CLAD).
Originally published in Spanish in the context of the Transforming Education Pre‐Summit* on the Inter-American Development Bank's education blog. Adaptation and introduction produced by the Development Coordination Office.
* The Transforming Education Pre‐Summit, hosted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), took place in Paris from 28 to 30 June. This pre-summit was an inclusive and open forum that helped lay the groundwork and develop a set of concrete actions for the Transforming Education Summit.