We are finally beginning to understand. It has taken a global pandemic and the closing of millions of schools for us to understand.. And it leaves 1.7 billion children without physical classes – over 171 million of them in our LAC region.
As a response to this crisis, most countries are migrating education services to virtual platforms, TV, and radio, in addition to providing physical books and materials directly to households. The package of services differs by country, and the World Bank has put together a list of curated materials. However, And this is that role that, finally, is making us understand and appreciate the importance and the difficulty of the job that teachers and schools do every day for our children.
The teacher’s role (and now the parents’)
I am not talking only about the difficulty of sitting down to complete a long list of tasks or connecting to endless virtual sessions with our children. I am also talking about understanding and managing their emotions, when we know that they are affected by external circumstances, outside of our control. I am talking about mediating in conflicts and discussions, when both children and adults are emotionally charged and full of energy but confined at home for hours at a time. I am talking about calming anxieties or answering existential questions about the reality we live in.
Our teachers do this for our children every day, with many more children and much more complex contexts, and not always with the resources and support they need. And that is not the only role the education system plays. It also provides a safe space for our children, in most cases providing food, necessary for many children across the region to meet their nutritional needs.
While schools are closed and quarantine policies continue, it is in the home that we need to guarantee the safety of children, their nutrition, and their cognitive and socioemotional development. Parents will necessarily play an essential role. But parents are not trained teachers or school counselors. They need help, and any effective response to this emergency needs to take into account the resources, tools, and support that parents need to play this role effectively.
Reality vs. Virtuality
It is now more important than ever to focus support on the most vulnerable households. In this crisis, they are more at risk of food insecurity and emotional stress, and poorer parents’ lower educational attainment makes it more difficult for them to provide pedagogical support. That is in addition to having less access to virtual materials. Recent numbers for Colombia show that in 2018, only 40 percent of Colombian students had an internet connection and access to digital devices at home (PC, tablet, laptop or smartphone), whereas 38 percent did not have either. For the poorest quintile of the population, 67 percent did not have any access to the internet or a device, and 47 percent do not own a TV at home, severely limiting their options to continue connected and learning. . It is now a widely shared concern that school closures could aggravate the global learning crisis exponentially.
In addition to providing pedagogical support, already an enormous challenge, it is important to focus on the physical and emotional well-being of children during this time. School feeding programs could now use alternative delivery methods such as distributing food in school to cook at home, targeting the most disadvantaged populations but extending the food to cover the household, not just the child, or could provide monetary transfers in some cases. This will also help maintain a link to the school for students who are at the highest risk of dropping out. It is also important to support families’ coexistence during this time, trying to implement existing socioemotional skills programs for use in the household, as Colombia is doing with the “Emociones para la Vida” program, for example. In the current situation, these aspects of children’s welfare are as challenging as learning itself.
Education systems will require titanic efforts to respond effectively to this crisis but let me end on a positive note. During the pandemic response, the wisdom and creativity of school communities in different contexts can generate valuable lessons to improve quality of education. New pedagogical models can arise that promote learning outside the classroom, tailored to local contexts and communities. We can learn how to use technology more effectively and how to involve parents in schools, a long-standing challenge in many countries.
This crisis can even help us see that,. I am hopeful. Now, more literally than ever, we are seeing clearly that the education of our children is everybody’s homework.