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OPINION July 10, 2020

Covid-19 imposes unprecedent challenges to education in Brazil

Keeping students learning under Covid-19 pandemics imposes challenges to education never seen in Brazil. It starts by its size: more than 47 million students are outside school to contain the virus. But it also exposes how networks were unprepared: teachers had to adapt overnight to teach remotely and vulnerable children see low-educated parents replacing their teachers on homeschooling. Internet connection does not reach vulnerable households and local authorities have to offer alternatives to facilitate remote learning. The mental burden on students, parents and teachers due to lockdown and uncertainty makes learning, teaching and parenting even harder. Amid the pandemics and beyond, there are several hurdles to take into account.

Recent learning poverty estimates suggest that 42.2 percent of 10-year-olds in Brazil do not understand an age-appropriate text. Already critical, Covid-19 pandemics tends to further deteriorate this scenario. The World Bank simulates that school closures due Covid-19 may raise the learning poverty by 2.6 pp, reaching 44.8 percent of children. But the consequences go deeper than harming foundational skills and learning in other subjects. In the short-run, the same estimates show that the proportion of children not enrolled in school may increase 0.1 pp for primary school-aged children. In other terms, coronavirus can backtrack the equivalent of one year of the recent progress in education in Brazil.

To mitigate such decline, governments have been investing in strategies to keep learning under the pandemics. For that, policies are utilizing preexistent infrastructure, aiming to provide teachers the right preparation and combining technologies to include the greatest number of students possible. Under these circumstances, effective remote learning and teacher training in the pedagogical use of technology are complementary policies. In Brazil, at least 60% of teachers express as “highly necessary” the provision of technology training during 2017.

Schools also work as a safety net for families. A significant proportion of children only find healthy and regular meals at schools. For families, and particularly to women that are often the primarily responsible for childcare, school closures can mean accumulating home office and childcare activities. But even for those able to find alternatives during the pandemic, it is important to note that parental support to child’s schoolwork correlates strongly with socioeconomic status. For these reasons, it is fundamental to support parental engagement on child’s education during Covid-19 pandemics – especially when the focus is on mitigating learning inequalities.

To better understand how students are vulnerable to school closures, an alternative is to combine in one index the availability of school meals; the use technology in the classroom; family support; if the student works outside the household; his performance in standardized tests and the probability of dropping out from school. The index exploring these characteristics is shown in Figures 1 and 2 and assumes that low-performing students that dropped out in the past are more vulnerable to the pandemics when school meals are cut, teachers are unprepared for remote teaching, and families are less engaged in homeschooling, than students on the opposite situation.

ImageFigure 1 and 2 indicate that further efforts to mitigate the impacts of Covid-19 on learning should be concentrated in the north and northeast parts of Brazil. Particularly, more vulnerable students are in Pará, Alagoas, Pernambuco, Maranhão, Amazonas and Paraíba. They are more than .10 points above the national average of .52 in terms of vulnerability to the pandemics. Students from Distrito Federal, Mato Grosso, Goiás, Tocantins, Minas Gerais and Paraná are in a less vulnerable position, for instance differences within the state must be considered.

Reopening schools demands careful planning. The first step is structuring a clear protocol prioritizing safety for all students. This plan must systematize the reopening but also an eventual closure in case of a new Covid-19 case occurs at school. In that stage, it is essential to establish an open dialogue with families, teachers and society to build trust on the reopening protocol. Local governments should also prepare their social protection systems already in place to attract students at risk of not getting back to school and distribute basic food baskets conditioned on returning. Once back, schools need to set early warning systems and monitor youth students at risk of dropping out from school.

Focused learning programs are fundamental to remedy learning gaps caused by the pandemics. Priority must be given to mitigation measures within the school and the school network. Upon return, applying standardized exams can map learning delays and trigger personalized policies for the most affected students. Small tutoring groups; re-deployment of teachers; discussion groups to alleviate the mental health; and flexible technical programs are similar alternatives of policies.