Children in Latin America showed the most learning loss of the pandemic

A few studies by UN agencies and other development groups paint a grim picture for a generation of Latin American students, who have lost nearly half of their school days since the start of the pandemic and whose reading and math skills are lagging drastically.

According to the reports, four-fifths of children at the end of primary school cannot understand a simple written text, compared to half before the pandemic. Only sub-Saharan Africa has poorer educational outcomes.

School closures in Latin America lasted longer than anywhere else except South Asia — an average of 225 days, compared to 141 days for schools around the world. Lack of access to computers and the Internet means that many children drop out or receive a poor education. According to a report, average reading and math scores for third- and sixth-graders may be worse today than they were a decade ago, negating a decade of modest progress — and the effects could be permanent. Today’s college students can expect to have a 12% reduction in income throughout their lives, representing a loss of $1,565 in median annual income, the surveys show.

“My main concern right now is that this will really break the progress we have been making slowly in improving opportunity and reducing inequality, the biggest problem we have in Latin America,” said Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, vice president of the World Bank for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Latin America was one of the world’s most unequal regions before the pandemic, and learning loss hit vulnerable groups especially hard. In Brazil, for example, the World Bank report noted that only about a third of students of African descent have access to a computer at home, compared to more than half of white students.

Paola Ramírez, who teaches English at a public school in Suba, a low-income neighborhood in Bogotá, Colombia, said fewer than 15 of her 40 students were able to regularly listen to class online.

“Some families had to share one phone between five children,” their only internet-connected device, she said.

In rural areas, connectivity is even worse. In Latin America, only a quarter of households have internet access, although the rate varies by country. Girls, who were often expected to do household chores or care for sick relatives during the pandemic, suffered the most. In 2020, the dropout rate for Paraguayan girls in primary high school was 23% higher than for boys, a report notes.

The report proposes returning to face-to-face teaching, providing support and training to teachers, and focusing on assessments to evaluate learning losses and create tailored programs for schools. Above all, the report says, reversing the damage from lost learning must become a priority for governments.

“This will have a big impact in the long run. It’s a generational crisis,” Jaramillo said, adding that governments “have to act now, they can’t wait two or three years.”