A year and a half without school: Margarita's story
Like many children in rural Ecuador, Margarita is eagerly awaiting the reopening of her school to resume her studies and see her friends.
It is early morning in El Cebadal, a rural community in Pimampiro, a canton in the province of Imbabura in the highlands of Ecuador. As the first glimmers of sunshine appear between the mountains, the roosters announce to Margarita that it is time to get up. In the cold of dawn, she goes out to the corral next to her house and collects the eggs that the hen has just laid. She returns to the kitchen with them and mixes them with flour and oil to make bread.
Preparing breakfast is her first household chore. Then she has to feed the chickens and guinea pigs, wash dishes, cook lunch and water the flowers she lovingly tends. She also helps her father, Darwin Guamán, grow sweet granadilla on their small plot of land. This is the routine left to her by the pandemic, since, due to COVID-19, she was no longer able to continue her studies.
To get to school, Margarita had to walk down from her house, located on the slopes of a hill, by way of a trail that winds its way through mud puddles, stones and overgrown weeds. Then she had to take a bus to travel a winding cobblestone road lined with cliffs that the locals call the "Vertigo Route". Ever since her school closed because of the pandemic and the bus stopped running more than a year and a half ago, Margarita misses making the difficult, daily journey to her classrooms.
In the area where she lives there is no internet signal and her family does not have the money to hire a satellite service. This is a frequent reality in Ecuador. According to the National Survey on Household Welfare in the Face of the Pandemic (Encovid-Ec) conducted by UNICEF, in order to continue education virtually, 1 in 2 households with children and adolescents need a computer and the same proportion of families require internet or improvements in their connectivity. This occurs mainly in rural and low socioeconomic areas.
As Margarita's case portrays, when children stop studying, they spend more time doing housework or working in the fields, and are more exposed to child labor, exploitation and other risks. In Ecuador, child labor in rural areas affects 1 in 5 children between the ages of 5 and 14, according to INEC's June 2021 National Survey of Employment, Unemployment and Underemployment.
As a result of the pandemic, at least 90,000 children and adolescents who were enrolled in school are no longer studying. This figure is in addition to the 268,000 who had previously dropped out of school.
In El Cebadal, with 150 inhabitants, no one has fallen ill with COVID-19. "We have not had any cases; we have heard of relatives who live in the cities and got infected. For us, the pandemic has meant economic and connectivity problems," says Miguel Anrango, a community leader. This lack of internet leaves households with a feeling of isolation, this is why the local leader believes that it is time to resume face-to-face classes and avoid more situations like Margarita’s.
In rural areas, where homes are far apart, schools are meeting places. Margarita is an only child and ever since her education was interrupted when she was in seventh grade, she has not seen her friends. In addition to affecting their learning, not going to school has an impact on children's wellbeing and development because it is in schools where they also receive food and socialize with classmates and teachers.
Last year, UNICEF and the Ministry of Education conducted a survey of 4,500 representatives of children and adolescents to learn about the impact of school closures on the mental health of children and adolescents. That study revealed that 4 out of 10 students felt distressed or stressed. Of these, only 3 out of 10 had received attention from the Student Counseling Departments (DECE).
When children experience frequent or prolonged adversity without adequate support, it can affect their cognitive development, learning ability and emotional control in the long term. For children, being out of the classroom can have negative effects not only on their learning but also on their physical and mental health. Because they are less physically active, spending more time in front of a screen, they can develop irregular sleep patterns and less healthy diets. Their mental health can be severely affected by the lack of personal contact with classmates, friends and teachers.
After a year and a half away from the classroom, Margarita longs to return. "I want to go back to school; when everything is given to us, one doesn’t appreciate it. They took me out of school and now I've learned to appreciate my studies," she says.
Her father supports her. He knows that education can make a big difference in his daughter's life. "I would like her to go back to school next year, even if it’s distance learning," he says. Everything will depend on whether the school Margarita attended reopens its doors.
According to data provided by Ecuador's Ministry of Education, after more than a year and a half of the health emergency, only 6% of schools have reopened, representing 47,038 students out of a total of 4.3 million who have been harmed by the closure of educational institutions.
Waiting to go back to her school, Margarita has her backpack ready at the headboard of her bed. There she keeps her books and notebooks, especially her drawing book, her favorite subject. The pages are decorated with shapes and tracings of carnations and roses, the same ones that grow outside her house and that the young girl waters every morning.