COVID-19 and the Learning Crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean: How Can We Prevent a Tragedy?

A female student is reading a book. A female student is reading a book.

Losing an entire year of schooling can mean the difference between a bright future and a life derailed.  That is what is happening to millions of children in Latin America. Hopes and dreams for a better life can be squashed forever – unless we act now.

We face the biggest crisis ever seen for education in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most schools have been closed for almost a year because of COVID-19. We can already see the damage in terms of education outcomes, human capital, and the productivity of an entire generation. 

First, let’s look at the damage, and then turn to the most pressing question: What do we need to do to prevent this crisis from turning into a tragedy?

As of February 2021, about 120 million of the region’s school-age children had already lost or were at risk of losing an entire academic year of presential education due to the measures to contain the pandemic, according to a new World Bank report “Acting now to protect the human capital of our children. The costs of and response to the COVID-19 pandemic impact to the education sector in Latin America and the Caribbean.”

And while governments sought to reach those students through online learning and other multi-modal solutions, far too many are simply falling through the cracks. Schools and families often weren’t ready to make the transition. For example, only about 77 percent of 15-year-old students in LAC have access to the internet at home, and this challenge has been much starker for disadvantaged groups. In Peru, Mexico, Panama, and Colombia, for example, barely 14, 19, 24 and 25 percent of students in the bottom quintile have Internet access at home, respectively.

The expected impact of the pandemic on learning and other education outcomes is staggering and tremendously unequal. Latin America and the Caribbean faced a learning crisis even before the pandemic. Learning Poverty – defined as the percentage of 10-year-olds that cannot read and understand a simple text – was already very high at 51 percent in the region. In addition, the region already had the world’s widest inequity in student access to quality education. For example, in Brazil, Learning Poverty in the state of Sao Paulo was 27 percent, while it reached 70 percent in the state of Maranhão.

The pandemic has just made this worse. At least 15 percent of students may never go back to school. Learning losses will likely be substantially larger for children in the lowest income quintile, widening the already high socio-economic education achievement gap by 12 percent. The earlier reopening of private schools vis-à-vis public schools in some countries is only contributing to this increase.

While things were bad before, they stand to get a lot worse unless we do something about it right now. Learning Poverty could increase by more than 20 percent – from a baseline of 51 percent, up to 62.5 percent, equivalent to an increase of roughly 7.6 million learning poor. After 10 months of school closures (the entire academic year), more than 2 out of 3 lower secondary education students (71 percent) may not be able to understand a text of moderate length, compared to 55 percent before the pandemic. This could increase to 77 percent if schools stay closed for another three months into the beginning of the 2021 school year.

These outcomes also have direct costs, both to the students’ individual potential and to future productivity for their countries. For example, learning losses may translate into a drop in future potential aggregate earnings for the region of US$1.7 trillion, about 10 percent of total baseline earnings, and equivalent to about 16 percent of the regional GDP.

On top of all this, economic distress for families and the interruption of services students used to receive at schools – including meals for 10 million students in the region – are harming students’ physical, mental, and emotional health.

Governments and everyone involved in our region’s education need to act now to mitigate the damage, investing to recover from the huge learning losses and taking advantage of the opportunity for change to build better education systems for our children.

That means getting ready for safe and effective school reopening country-wide and ensuring that sufficient funding is allocated for this. So, what to do?

  • Schools can successfully implement context-appropriate health and hygiene protocols.  
  • Teachers could be classified as frontline workers and prioritized in the vaccination process.
  • School calendars should be modified, and curriculums prioritized, defining targets of learning recovery and minimum learning objectives for 2021 and 2022.
  • Teachers should get the tools to effectively identify where each child is in terms of learning achievement. Is student learning where it was supposed to be three months ago? Six months ago?  One year ago?
  • Effective and scalable strategies for level-appropriate teaching should be adopted, and include, as needed, in-school and after-school remedial programs.
  • Teachers and principals will need to be supported to obtain the skills to optimize the alternation of in-person and remote activities.

While the challenges are enormous, the potential is also enormous to build back education systems even better than before. The pandemic opens a once-in-a-lifetime window of opportunity for long overdue investments in technology to close the digital divide; in teachers, investing in the professionalization of their careers and giving them the tools they need to fulfill their increasingly complex roles; and in supporting the roles of parents and communities in the educational process. This might happen faster and better (some mental barriers regarding teachers’ ability to adapt to new technologies are now lower, for example). These investments must build upon the immediate response. Our critical policy challenge is to make sure that this window of opportunity is not lost, and countries use this momentous crisis as THE opportunity to start seeing a turning point in addressing the learning crisis.

COVID-19 could be an opportunity to transform education systems and develop a new vision where learning happens for everyone, everywhere. But this requires prioritizing financial investments in education and huge political will.  The future depends on us doing it right.


Jaime Saavedra

Human Development Director for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank

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