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Opinion: How Latin America's Kids Suffer From World's Longest COVID School Closings

Updated May 7, 2021 at 1:21 PM ET

Alejandro Tarre is a Venezuelan writer and journalist.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, education was already a problem area in Latin America. Despite meaningful progress in recent decades, more than 10 million children did not attend school and a large part of those who did attend did not meet basic learning competencies in reading, math and language. Education systems were plagued by deep structural inequalities that mirrored the wide income inequality in the region.

The pandemic has made this bad situation worse. While school shutdowns were global, Latin American children have lost on average around three months more of class time than students elsewhere in the world. More than 3 million may never return to school, which UNICEF rightly calls a "generational catastrophe."

The United States tends to overlook crises in the region. The Central American migrant crisis is getting attention because it spilled into U.S. territory — and immigration is a contentious domestic political issue. But there is now a crisis that involves not only Central America but Latin America as a whole. And the migrant crisis is a reminder of the risks of ignoring — until it's too late — ongoing tragedies south of the border.

Latin America is the world's epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic. With just 8% of the world's population, it has almost 30% of all fatalities from COVID-19. Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay are among the top 15 countries in deaths per capita in the last seven days.

As elsewhere, the health crisis and lockdowns have hammered the economy, plunging the region into its worst recession since 1821. Last year alone, the total number of poor people rose to 209 million (a third of the population), 22 million more than in 2019. Second and third waves of the virus, along with a slow vaccine rollout and the surge of the dangerous p.1 variant, have dampened the hopes of a quick recovery.

This economic calamity is intertwined with another less visible pandemic-induced crisis with devastating implications for the future. According to UNICEF, children in the Latin American and Caribbean regions have missed 158 school days on average over the past year, compared with the global average of 95. Some 114 million students are still unable to attend in person. The school closures — the longest in the world — reflect the high caseload but also the enormous challenges to reopen. To cite just one obstacle, 4 out of 10 schools lack hand-washing facilities. Students are already falling behind. According to the World Bank, the share of children that cannot read proficiently when they reach late primary school could increase from 51% to 62.5% (an additional 7.6 million people).

Children attend a care center with tutors in Caracas, Venezuela, Nov. 4, 2020. Many countries in Latin American and the Caribbean have shut schools during the coronavirus pandemic, and children from lower-income families are often unable to participate in online distance learning.
Ariana Cubillos / AP
Children attend a care center with tutors in Caracas, Venezuela, Nov. 4, 2020. Many countries in Latin American and the Caribbean have shut schools during the coronavirus pandemic, and children from lower-income families are often unable to participate in online distance learning.

As in other indicators, the pandemic's impact here is highly unequal. Children from high-income families have been able to switch to online learning. But those from disadvantaged households often don't have Internet or lack a reliable connection. UNICEF estimates that three-quarters of the children attending private school are able to access distance education. In public schools it's only half.

In some places school shutdowns and escalating dropout rates have been a boon for criminal organizations. Idle children in families whose income has been decimated by the recession or the health crisis (the pandemic has left in its wake many orphans) are forced to abandon any hope to resume school and look for work. Since poverty and unemployment are rising, working for a criminal organization, especially in the places where illicit activities are a big part of the economy, is often one of the few options available. In Colombia, for example, civil society organizations have been able to register sharp increases in the recruitment of children by criminal groups.

How can the U.S. help? First of all, it should provide more assistance with vaccines. Except for Chile and Uruguay, the vaccination rollout in the region has been very slow. The West's focus on vaccinating its own populations has left Latin America relying on China and Russia for shots. The Biden administration sent a first batch of 2.7 million vaccines to Mexico in March and April. But it should do a lot more — both in Mexico and the rest of the region, including Brazil, where the death tally is the world's second highest and a much larger percentage of the population than in India. With cases still soaring, it's difficult to address anything else.

Apart from vaccines, the U.S. could play a role making education an important part of the recovery plans. Emiliana Vegas, an education expert at the Brookings Institution, told me it's easy to imagine this issue falling by the wayside, crowded out by other pressing matters. The U.S. could harness the U.S. Agency for International Development and exert its influence in the top multilateral development organizations to push education to the center of the agenda. Vegas thinks President Biden could also bring in other actors to help. American tech giants and the online education industry have benefited enormously from the pandemic. Biden could pressure these companies to help expand Internet access and facilitate distance learning across the region. Other analysts think the U.S. should sign agreements with online education platforms to offer free classes to millions of children. These ideas are all worth considering.

In Latin America the pandemic has both exacerbated old problems and created new ones. The victims are not only the older generations that are more vulnerable to the coronavirus but also the children whose future is now under threat. Ignoring this tragedy could lead to intractable crises that, like the one in Central America, have no quick, easy solutions.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: May 7, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
Uruguay, Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay were among the top 15 countries in deaths per capita in the past seven days. A previous version of this story failed to specify the time frame — seven days.
Alejandro Tarre