Recovering lost learning in Ecuador after two years of the pandemic
The return to on-site classes represents a new opportunity for children like Romina to resume their education and make friends again. In Ecuador, UNICEF supports a catch-up program for students who are behind in school.
It is 5 a.m. and Romina’s (14) alarm o’clock rings to start her daily routine. In what has been her room for the last few months there are clothes, some personal belongings, and notebooks which show her willingness to resume her studies after two long years without stepping foot in a classroom.
Romina’s mornings are different now. She has breakfast with her cousin Angie Aráuz (23), who took her into her home in Manta, on the coast of Ecuador, so she could go back to school. This new opportunity has brought her joy back. Romina smiles as she gets ready for class.
When the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020, Romina lived with her father in the Pichincha Canton, in the Province of Manabí, 135 kilometers from Manta. Her mother works as a housekeeper in a family house, where she lives most of the time. Economic difficulties forced Romina to give up her studies and start working in a car wash with her father.
“When I wasn’t in school, I missed learning natural sciences, doing experiments with steam and air, playing and talking with my friends,” Romina recalls wistfully.
In mid-2021, Romina’s life took a turn when she traveled to Manta to celebrate her cousin Angie’s daughter’s birthday. During the party, she mentioned how much she missed studying. “When she told me how she felt, I suggested her to come and live with me and go back to school,” said Angie, who decided to become her caretaker.
Together, they began a new stage with a clear objective: "What I want is for Romina to study, so that later on in life she can work and become an independent woman. I want her to do better than me, because I haven't finished school," says Angie, who recognizes that she had to abandon her studies because of her early motherhood.
Romina tried to find out how she could return to the education system and discovered the Pedagogical Leveling and Acceleration Program (NAP), supported by UNICEF Ecuador and implemented through its partner, the Center for Development and Self-Management (DYA), in coordination with the Ministry of Education.
Today, an enthusiastic Romina finishes her breakfast and leaves to take a bus to El Girón School, in Manta, where she will be able to make up for lost learning.
An Indispensable Initiative
Romina is one of the 4,364 students between the ages of 8 and 18 who have resumed their studies through the NAP, an initiative implemented in 18 provinces in Ecuador to support children and adolescents who are behind in school and thus preventing them from dropping out.
Despite her desire, making up for the lost time hasn’t been easy for Romina. She has to make new friends and get used to study again. “I learn one thing, I try to learn another and I forget what came before. Now that I've gone back to school, the hardest subject has been math," she admits.
Children and adolescents in Latin America and the Caribbean are among those most affected by school closures. In the region, schools have been closed for – on average – 37 weeks since March 2020 and it is estimated that only 39% of elementary students can read a simple text1.
According to surveys conducted by the Ministry of Education and UNICEF, 70% of households in Ecuador that remained in virtual education said that they were learning less than before2.
In this situation, the work of teachers is key. One of them is Richard Mendoza, Romina’s teacher in the leveling program. “She showed many shortcomings after two years away from school. This means that, although she has learned significantly, there are certain things that she forgets. It's like starting all over again," he explains.
He says that his students have problems with reading and math. “They can read, but they don’t understand what they are reading. This happens with the majority of them (…). We are also addressing their shortcomings in basic operations like addition, subtraction and multiplication."
His work is titanic. In this leveling program, which condenses three years into one, he teaches the basic subjects in an integrated manner. In the same class, students can learn more than one skill. For example, while analyzing a logic problem, they develop language and math skills.
A Comprehensive Support
In addition to academic gaps, teachers must also reinforce study habits and social-emotional skills. Returning to the classroom and meeting other young people her age was a challenge for Romina: “My first day at school was difficult. I was embarrassed and afraid, but time went by and I became more confident.”
School closures have affected the well-being and mental health of children and adolescents. “We’ve seen students who lost relationship skills. They suffer from panic attacks, and struggle with anxiety when speaking in front of their peers. They fear not having friends and not being accepted in the group," says Maria Fernanda Porras, UNICEF Education Officer.
"We must prevent children and adolescents from continuing to lose out. To this end, it is essential to evaluate each student, provide them with comprehensive support and ensure that the educational community, especially teachers, have the training and educational resources they need to accompany them in their academic achievements, but also to safeguard their mental health," the specialist recommends.
Richard, who has been teaching for seven years, is a great support for his students and for Romina. "I will always be there to address their concerns and support them in everything I can. We have been prepared for that."
Romina knows that and trusts her teacher. After completing the leveling program, a few days ago she found out that she had passed the exam to enter the first year of high school. “My teacher told me I would make it. I’m striving to be a good student. My dream is to become a policewoman to help people”, she concludes with optimism.
The goal of all countries should be to ensure that every child recovers his or her learning. To this end, it is essential to strengthen initiatives such as the Pedagogical Leveling and Acceleration Program, ensuring there’s a budget for that, expanding its offerings and improving teachers' skills.