Schools will reopen: will Latin America and the Caribbean be ready?

Covid-19 closed almost all schools in Latin America and the Caribbean. Since mid-March, more than 95% of students enrolled in the region have been out of class. As quarantine restrictions are eventually and gradually lifted, governments will face a difficult 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 well-being. Even before the pandemic, more than 12 million children and adolescents were out of school. How many more will there be after the pandemic? We have learned from previous humanitarian emergencies that the longer students stay away from the educational environment, the greater the risk that they will never return, especially the most vulnerable.

In general, the closure of schools has impacted the learning processes of most children and adolescents, but vulnerable groups are the most affected. Beyond learning, important school-provided services such as school meals and health care have been suspended in many countries. Covid-19 and quarantine have caused the massive loss of jobs and income for many families in the region. For those parents whose livelihoods have been diminished, sending their children back to school will be one more expense. And what about teachers? They have been asked to adopt new teaching modalities in extreme circumstances. Is your job safe? What about your own safety, health and well-being? Do they have the support they need?

Before the pandemic, regional projections indicated that in Latin America around 100 million children and adolescents from 2 to 17 years old witnessed violence or were exposed to at least one or more types of violence. With schools closed, children in the home are increasingly vulnerable to domestic violence and emotional, physical and sexual abuse. For this reason, it is vital that they return to safe educational environments that provide them with conditions of well-being and protection such as those offered by schools.

In order not to undermine the learning and potential of an entire generation of students, educational continuity and the reopening of schools should be a priority for governments. But when should they reopen?

The reopening of schools according to the plans of each country should be gradual and actively monitored.

This decision is primarily from the government, specific to the context of each country, based on evidence about the public health situation, and guided by the best interests of the child. This requires a sectoral risk assessment and a response plan in which the health, education and social protection sectors interact harmoniously in coordination with the Ministry of Health.

The reopening according to the plans of each country should be gradual and actively monitored. For example, students may return to school in areas where transmission rates are lower, on certain days of the week, or for some grades and levels.

What is required to reopen them? In line with the covid-19 World Coalition for Education, 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.

As schools remain closed, there is an urgent need for governments to speed up proper planning and defining procedures for return. In many Latin American and Caribbean countries, UNICEF and Unesco have already intensified their support for these ongoing efforts by national authorities.

In the past few weeks, many students have adopted the practice of washing their hands at home to save their lives. But will they find soap and water when they return to school?

The coming weeks will be critical for countries to prepare with defining policies, procedures, and funding for safe school operations and protective environments. It will also be time to ensure that school administrators, teachers, communities, families, and children and adolescents are fully aware of the measures they must take to mitigate risks. The teaching staff must be prepared and receive the necessary support, and teachers should focus on the recovery of learning losses in order to avoid exacerbating educational gaps and provide well-being and protection to students.

Particular attention must be paid to ensuring that the most vulnerable children and adolescents return to school and that their socioeconomic, gender, disability, ethnicity or nationality does not prevent them from receiving the education they need.

In the past few weeks, many students have adopted the practice of washing their hands at home to save their lives. But will they find soap and water when they return to school? In Latin America and the Caribbean, one in six schools (16%) does not have water services and one in five (19.8%) does not have facilities for washing hands. Now is the perfect time to renovate and reorganize educational infrastructure to keep students safe in and out of the classroom.

Probably more than ever in modern history, covid-19 is testing the resilience of education systems in Latin America and the Caribbean. There is a real threat that the current crisis will erase the progress made throughout the region in recent decades. However, this crisis can also be used as an opportunity to rethink education and make it more relevant and sustainable in the future.

What will schools be like after the quarantine of covid-19? Will we return to schools that continue to deepen pre-existing inequalities in both access and quality? Or will we return to safer, smarter and more inclusive schools where students achieve meaningful and relevant learning?

Parents, teachers, students and governments of Latin America and the Caribbean do not dream of the school to which we want to return. We are going to build it now, and together, for every boy, girl and teenager.

Claudia Uribe she is the director of Unesco’s Regional Office for Education in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Bernt Aasen He is Unicef’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

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