BY ANDRES MARTINEZ-FERNANDEZ
By most measures, Latin America has become the new epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, with the region struggling to cope with both the pandemic and the resulting socio-economic crises. Now, governments are forced to make difficult decisions about schooling, with most imposing extended country-wide school closures for in-person classes.
Even in highly developed countries, cancelling in-person classes brings significant consequences. In Latin America, particularly for the poor and middle-class populations, the ramifications will likely be felt for decades due to already daunting levels of inequality and the lack of access to basic utilities that characterizes poverty in Latin America. The US has an important opportunity to promote hemispheric stability and goodwill — thereby countering China’s diplomatic offensive — by partnering with Latin America and leveraging the power of the US private sector to mitigate the impact of shutdowns on the region’s vulnerable student population.
The shuttering of in-person schooling in Latin America will hit families differentially based on income and exacerbates the already daunting challenges posed by economic inequality in what is already the most unequal region in the world. Wealthier families in the region will be able to create home environments that facilitate remote learning with access to technology, study spaces, and even private home instructors. Students in families without such means will have to contend with comparatively more crowded living situations, minimal access to the internet and technology, and other challenges. Approximately 15 percent of poor students across Latin America have access to an internet-enabled computer.
Parents are also forced to fill in the gaps left by remote learning, providing oversight of children while virtually attending classes and completing classwork. For poor and middle-class families in much of Latin America, both parents are often employed in essential sectors such as agriculture and staffing grocery stores, or they are forced to work informally without the savings to forgo work for any significant period of time. This again opens a serious gap in the region’s already unequal education system.
The likely results are clear. Students with more means will continue their educations largely without interruption while others will be left trailing behind, either forced to repeat the school year or pushed forward to the next grade without being properly prepared.
The consequences of a lost year of schooling can be significant and go on to affect employment outcomes. This not only has negative repercussions for individuals and general inequality, but also for the region’s future productivity and economic development.
If Latin American countries are unable to mitigate this impact, the region will face significant losses to future productivity and a greater exacerbation of inequality than perhaps any other region in the world during this crisis. In Latin America, these factors have also contributed to the rise of social unrest, as seen in last fall’s wave of protests across multiple South American countries.
As the US continues to compete with extra-regional powers seeking influence in Latin America — and as Washington prioritizes sustainable development for the benefit of the hemisphere — US policymakers should make a concerted push to support access to education amid the pandemic. This includes emergency initiatives expanding internet access and supporting the development and adaptation of virtual learning platforms in partnership with any number of ed-tech firms, such as Coursera, Khan Academy, and language learning platforms like EnglishHelper. Successful models for promoting broader access to education in areas affected by conflict can also provide useful methods for the pandemic, such as the use of interactive radio instruction and mobile phones.
While daunting, the rapid development of such initiatives now will pay future dividends for US relations with Latin America and for hemispheric growth and stability.