Schools will reopen. Will Latin America and the Caribbean be ready?
The longer students stay away from the educational environment, the greater the risk that they will never return, especially the most vulnerable
Spanish version was published by El País on 17 May 2020.
COVID-19 closed almost all schools in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since mid-March, more than 95 per cent of the students enrolled in the region haven’t entered a classroom. As lockdown restrictions are eventually and gradually lifted, governments will face a tough question: When and how should schools reopen?
In Latin America and the Caribbean, the current health crisis is threatening children´s rights to education, protection and wellbeing. Before COVID-19, more than 12 million children were out of school. How many more will there be after the pandemic? We have learned from humanitarian situations that the longer children remain out of school, the higher the risk they never return, especially for the most vulnerable children.
Overall, school closures have impacted learning pathways of most children and adolescents, but vulnerable groups are the most affected. Beyond learning, important services in many countries, such as school feeding and health services provided in school, have been put on halt. COVID-19 and the related lockdown have led to massive job and incomes losses for many families in the region. For those parents whose livelihoods have been most impacted, sending their children back to school will be harder to afford. And what about teachers? They have been called upon to embrace new modalities of teaching in extreme circumstances. Is their employment secure? What about their own safety, health and well-being? Do they have the support they need?
Before COVID-19, regional projections indicated that in Latin America around 100 million children aged two to 17 years old witnessed violence or were exposed to at least one or more types of violenc. With schools closed, children at home are increasingly vulnerable to domestic violence and abuse, including emotional, physical and sexual violence. It is vital for children and adolescents to go back to school and enjoy the protection environment that schools offer them.
If we do not want to undermine the learning and potential of an entire generation of students, education and the reopening of schools should be a priority for governments. When should schools reopen?
The decision on the timing of school reopening lies with the Government. It depends on the specific context of each country and should be based on evidence from the public health sector and guided by the principle of the best interest of the child. Every Government should undertake its own assessment of readiness, informed by an analysis of benefits and risks across education, public health and socio-economic factors, in coordination with the Ministry of Health (MOH).
The reopening of schools will vary from one country to another and should be gradual and actively monitored. For instance, students may first return to school in areas with the lowest rates of transmission and just for a few days of the week or only for certain grades and level.
What is required for the reopening of schools? In alignment with the COVID-19 Global Education Coalition, UNICEF, UNESCO, the World Food Program (WFP) and the World Bank have developed a framework to assist national preparedness and guide the implementation of the reopening of schools.
While schools continue to be closed, it is urgent for governments to accelerate appropriate planning and preparation for reopening. In many countries across Latin America and the Caribbean, UNICEF and UNESCO have already intensified their support to these ongoing efforts by national authorities.
The coming weeks will be critical for countries to prepare for the reopening of schools and for establishing policies, procedures and financing for safe school operations and protective environments. It is also a time for ensuring that school administrators, teachers, communities, families and children are fully cognizant of the measures they need to take to mitigate risks. The teaching workforce needs to be prepared and supported and schools will need to be ready to compensate for learning losses in order to prevent the exacerbation of learning gaps, and to provide for the well-being and protection of children.
Particular focus and attention must be placed on ensuring that vulnerable children return to school and that their socioeconomic condition, gender, disability, ethnicity or nationality do not keep them from receiving the education they need.
In the past weeks, many students have taken on the life-saving practice of handwashing at home. But will they find water and soap when they return to school? In Latin America and the Caribbean, 1 out of 6 schools (16%) do not have water services at all and 1 out of 5 schools (19,8%) do not have any handwashing facilities. Now is the perfect time to refurbish and reorganize education facilities to keep students safe in and outside the classroom.
Probably more than ever in modern history, the resilience of education systems in Latin America and the Caribbean is being tested by COVID-19. There is a real threat that the current crisis will erase the gains made across the region during the past decades. However, this crisis can also be used as an opportunity to re-think education and make it more relevant and resilient in the future.
What will schools be like in the aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown? Will we come back to schools where pre-existing inequalities in both access and quality of education are widening? Or will we return to safer, smarter and more inclusive schools where meaningful and relevant learning takes place?
Parents, teachers, students and governments across Latin America and Caribbean let’s not dream about the school to which we want to return; let’s build it now, and together, for every child.
* Claudia Uribe is Director of the UNESCO Latin America and the Caribbean Regional Office, and Bernt Aasen is Regional Directgor of UNICEF Latin America and Caribbean Regional Office.
 Global prevalence of past-year violence against children: a systematic review and minimum estimates. Hillis S, Mercy J, Amobi A, Kress H. Pediatrics 2016; 137(3): e20154079.
 Joint (UNICEF/WHO) Monitoring Programme (JMP, www.washdata.org)