The lasting impact of Covid-19 on education: a look at Ecuador.
Global school closures in response to the Covid-19 are set to have lasting impacts on education. In this pandemic, economic and social stress coupled with important social distancing measures led to a shadow crisis in the educative system, and most importantly a setback from the educative progress countries had been experiencing.
The Covid-19 crisis has forced school closures in 188 countries around the world, disrupting the education of more than 1.7 billion children (OECD 2020b). In August 2020, the UN conducted a report estimating 94% of the global student population to have been impacted by the closure of learning spaces, and 99% in low and lower-middle income countries (UN 2020). This was the initial assessment as most countries slowly exited lockdown measures, and students could progressively return to schools. A year into the crisis, a second assessment indicates that movement restrictions and epidemic insecurity still results in an education struggle for more than half of the world’s student population. While the learning loss represents the most immediate threat to tackle, education aspirations and learning engagement could also see lasting repercussions.
Unlike previous economic crises, the Covid-19 crisis is set to impact children’s achievements in the long-term, resulting in a significant blow for learning overall. It could result in a huge setback from the progress made over the past 30 years in the quest for education for all. The pandemic exacerbated even more the divide in learning opportunities as school closures particularly affected marginalised groups and lower-income families (Schleicher 2020). What could have been expected to be only a short-term lockdown phenomenon issue is now set to represent a persistent step-back for learning rates and education equality. In the next section, I will analyse the case of Ecuador, a country that observed school closures in March 2020 with no re-opening ever since.
Figure 1: Education, a year into the crisis.
Source: Data retrieved from UNESCO, January 2021.
The situation in Ecuador
There is only limited information about the consequences of school closures for education in Ecuador. A first assessment was developed by UNICEF in the aftermath of the crisis, with worrying conclusions about distance learning (UNICEF 2020). Only 37% of households have access to the internet in Ecuador, meaning 6 in 10 children do not have the means to pursue their education online. The situation is even more serious in rural areas, where only 18% of families have internet access, leaving only 2 out of 10 children able to follow online classes. With the Ecuadorian government’s decision to close schools in March 2020 and rapidly transition to remote learning, the lack of digitalisation fostered inequalities in the country. Children from poorer households did not have the means to keep up with their studies, and what should have been a temporary situation resulted in a lasting phenomenon as school closures have now been on for more than 35 weeks – one of the longest closure period compared to the global situation (UNESCO 2021). The government failed to efficiently address these concerns, as it initially thought of the crisis being much shorter, realisation of its severity only coming as the months dragged on. To this extent, Covid-19 only exacerbated an already simmering economic crisis in Ecuador. The digital divide is likely to result in lasting inequalities among the Ecuadorian population. 50% of children were already estimated to live in poverty prior to the crisis, with the economic situation only worsening, poverty rates are set to skyrocket. Our partner in Quito, Paola Pinza – director of the organisation ECUASOL – reported that as a result of the crisis, many parents had to rely on informal jobs in order to provide for the needs of their families. The country has been facing an economic and employment crisis for the past years, with the INEC estimating 1.8 millions of people to have regressed to extreme poverty as a result of the crisis (INEC 2020). A similar segment of the population is expected to have moved from middle-class to poverty. The pandemic seems to have fostered already existing social and economic instabilities among the Ecuadorian society, alongside an even more divisive and deepening education crisis.
The education crisis is also set to have lasting consequences for gender-equality, disproportionately affecting girls and women. It has been much debated that prolonged school closures negatively affect women more than men, resulting in a significant blow for gender equality. Usually carrying the highest burden of housework, women have been bearing most of the epidemic-related costs entailed by movement restrictions, school closures, and stay at home policies (Alonso et al. 2019, Alon et al. 2020). With children being forced to stay at home, the social pressure of childcare obligations pushed many women to stay at home, taking up the education. Looking at Ecuador, the participation of women in the workplace dramatically dropped, as many women were forced to leave employment, or take up lower-responsibility jobs. Unfortunately, a similar observation can be drawn for girls, with the impact of Covid-19 school closures on education loss hitting them even harder. In April 2020, the Malala Fund estimated that 20 million girls may never return to the classroom once the pandemic had passed. School closures lasting in time, this expectation is set to worsen as learning engagement continues to drop.
Our schools today are our economies tomorrow
The Ecuadorian case demonstrates the extent to which the current crisis is set to result in an ever-lasting crisis for global education. Given the unprecedented nature of the Covid-19 crisis, it seemed natural to focus on the short-term challenges regarding health and preventive measures. Concern was centred around stopping the infectious rate and slowing the spread of Covid-19 overall. Yet, as months went by, it became more and more evident that the crisis was not only threatening our health, but most certainly the economic, social and education sectors even harder. With almost every student facing disruptions in their studies from preventive measures, it is now clear that the current generation will face dramatic consequences for its education.
A study developed by RISE – Research on Improving Systems of Education – demonstrates that only three months of missed schools can result in 1.5 years of learning loss years later (Kaffenberger 2020). This incredibly worrying figure is even more alarming for developing countries where children already faced learning difficulties prior to the crisis. In 2019, the World Bank introduced an ambitious program to tackle what it referred to as ‘Learning Poverty’ with 80% of children in poorest countries unable to read at age 10, and 53% in low and middle-income countries (World Bank 2019). This policy aimed at cutting by at least half these figures by 2030. Indeed, the global learning crisis was already damming before Covid-19 and fostered as a consequence.
While it is difficult to predict exactly how school closures will affect student’s future development, it is clear that the learning losses will be a lasting consequence of the crisis. With 8 out of 10 children reporting that they only learnt little to nothing since the onset of Covid-19, a surge in learning deficiency seems inevitable. Yet, the global education crisis forces governments to develop strategies to protect the Covid-19 generation’s future.
Global response to the education crisis
In a sense, the pandemic represents a real opportunity to transform education worldwide. With the global learning situation already facing important challenges, now may be the time to build back better and revert pre-Covid-19 ways of operating.
New approaches to education and learning innovations that came as a necessity from the turmoil could be used to improve global learning (OECD 2020a). An inspiring example of this is can be drawn from the digital divide – the gap between under-connected and highly digitalized countries. Prior to the crisis, digital inequality was already a key concern, creating a form of social exclusion by depriving some citizens of essential resources for development and wealth generation. School closures from Covid-19 rendered concerns about digitalisation particularly acute as the internet and digital devices played a central role in emergency education plans. Yet, signs indicate that it may have produced the necessary impulse for governments to bridge digital divides. A recent UNCTAD study reveals that Covid-19 has accelerated access to the internet, by speeding up the global transition towards a digital economy (UNCTAD 2020). While this is still insufficient to tackle global digital inequality and ensure the same learning opportunities to all, it shows the capacity of this pandemic to foster positive action.
Indeed, education constitutes one the greatest challenges from this pandemic, with the UN secretary general urging governments to make it a top priority in their response and recovery spending. By creating the most severe disruption to global education systems, Covid-19 could therefore result in the necessary stimulus for an efficient cooperation in the global learning quest.
This article was written thanks to the contribution of ECUASOL and its partner International Impact, providing us original and sensible data about the educative system in Ecuador.