COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 33
Undoubtedly, the pandemic has had far reaching, catastrophic and often permanent effects on health and socio-economic well-being. A recent report from UNICEF [available also in Spanish] highlights how the pandemic crisis is exacerbating pre-existing conditions and exclusions faced by the world’s children, “as the most disadvantaged households struggle to cope with damaging fallout from the loss of jobs, livelihoods, income, mobility, learning, health and access to services.” The effects of the pandemic will be felt for years to come as “[c]hildren face a trifecta of threats: direct consequences of the disease itself, interruption in essential services and increasing poverty and inequality.” Speaking specifically of the issue of education and learning, the report states that while some consequences of the pandemic “such as a year of interrupted school with little learning…may not seem all that serious against the backdrop of this global pandemic…these experiences will reverberate into the future of every child who goes through them.” The UNICEF report states that at its peak, school closures due to COVID-19 affected almost 90% of children around the world, translating to 1.5 billion schoolchildren, including 743 million girls and 111 million children in the world’s least developed countries.
In this report, we will briefly identify the impact COVID-19 has had on students, teachers, parents, schools, and the community, while also highlighting community-based efforts to move students’ education forward in both Cuba and Puerto Rico. Despite having radically different educational systems, the two Spanish-speaking Caribbean islands share the same resilience and expectations to face these turbulent times. Compared to other parts of Latin America, the Caribbean as a whole has not experienced overwhelming amounts of confirmed cases and mortality rates of COVID-19. However, various sectors of their societies have been dramatically and, some will argue, permanently altered. Education is definitely one of them.
Broadcasting Classes on Cuban TV
In Cuba, the Ministry of Education closed schools on March 24, 2020, at the time hoping to reopen on April 20. Steps were implemented to continue education via classes on national television. In addition to televised classes, other methods were used by teachers and families to continue education, including publication of materials over social media, WhatsApp and other messaging apps, and telephone communication. The ministry also shares the televised classes via an online portal and app. Online review tools that were normally available for a fee were made free to students during the school lockdown. In anticipation of reopening schools, in May 2020 the Ministry also announced adjustments to evaluation methods and measures for primary education with an emphasis on flexibility. Along the same vein, it was also announced that once schools reopened, adjustments would be made to the subjects methods, and timing of assessments for each level.
As previously reported, the Cuban economy is in dire crisis, and no sector has been left unscathed, including education. In preparation for the reopening of schools, school uniforms were rationed and limited according to grade levels and courses, due to a shortage of fabric imports. The government also increased education funding, both in anticipation of the January 1, 2021 currency devaluation, and to also maintain health and educational goals during the pandemic. The Ministry of Education also received donations of thermometers and hand soap from the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization.
Ultimately schools were reopened using strict cleaning protocols, health screenings, sanitary measures and mask requirements for in person learning in early September 2020, except in seven municipalities and the entire province of Havana which continued with remote learning, due to the prevalence of coronavirus in those areas. Upon reopening in person, the schools set about to complete the interrupted 2019-2020 school year, ending the term in late October, and then beginning the new 2020-2021 school scheduled to run from November 2, 2020 until July 24, 2021, with the goal of resuming a normal school calendar in September 2021 for the 2021-2022 school year.
The province of Havana reopened schools for in person instruction on November 2, 2020 to complete the 2020-2021 school year, and began the new school year on December 7, 2020. Bearing in mind the need to catch the province up to the rest of the country, officials adjusted schedules and staggered starting times, in order to meet educational goals while avoiding overcrowding. The Minister of Education Dania López announced that the 2019-2020 school year had concluded without any coronavirus transmissions in schools. Unfortunately, due to a rise in coronavirus cases in the country, the Minister of Education announced that schools would once again be closed to in person learning, and that classes would once again be delivered via television beginning January 20, 2021. A number of primary schools in Havana, and in other provinces, remained open for the benefit of allowing parents to continue to work. The government maintained its dedication to continuing the country’s educational system, with President Miguel Díaz-Canel commenting that this new normal would require more institutional, social, familial and individual responsibility to succeed.
Communities in Puerto Rico as The Education Guarantors
The right to public education is embedded in the Constitution of Puerto Rico, Article II Section 5. However, as education goes beyond formal and traditional instruction because of COVID-19, we have witnessed the multidimensional impact the disruption of education has had in our communities. The structural deficiencies of the education systems, the social inequality experienced by students and teachers, the digital gap, and the absence of school communities’ participation in educational plans are unsolved. Like the government in general, public schools in Puerto Rico closed operations on March 15, 2020. This government shutdown included special education centers and services throughout Puerto Rico. When a temporary shutdown turned indefinite until further notice, and temporary online education became the norm, we can’t but highlight that according to the U.S. Census Community Survey, for the 2013-2017 period, only 54% of households on the island have internet access and 62% have a computer. These percentages did not reflect Hurricane Maria’s impact in September 2017 or the January 2020 earthquakes that shook the island’s southwest side. Technology and natural disasters aside, like in many other places worldwide, parents, grandparents, guardians, siblings, and neighbors became the teachers, among many other daily schooling duties.
January 11, 2021, marks the first day for the second semester of the 2020-2021 academic year. Currently, the public education system has more than 270,000 enrolled students, many of whom have not been back to school since mid-March 2020. With over a quarter-million students receiving education from home, communities have identified new and creative ways to make school accessible and just plain doable. For example, the municipality of Juncos, with the help of the Puerto Rico Community Foundation,( the FCPR is the first community foundation in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean) developed an initiative to support children and young adults on their online education by creating a physical space, where up to 50 students, in staggered schedules, could visit the center to use WiFi, computers and educational support. Ruteando Mi Isla led another incredible and local initiative. They are originally a local Puerto Rico spot finder to promote tourism turned community advocate. This initiative’s goal was to raise funds to buy computers, desks, school supplies, and others for a child in need.
In April 2020, the Puerto Rico Health Department enabled a new online application called BioPortal. BioPortal is an application that allows medical/hospital facilities and clinical laboratories in Puerto Rico to report the laboratory results of samples analyzed for COVID-19. Using data from this portal, the Health Department created a weekly report on COVID-19 for decision-making in the school communities of Puerto Rico. According to the latest report, there are 344,534 registered students (276,626 from public schools and 67,908 from private institutions). From the total of registered students, 6,071 of them tested positive to COVID-19. The Department of Education uses positivity percentage as a top indicator to reopen schools. The Puerto Rico Community Foundation drafted a plan in July 2020 called “Educación segura y accessible: Consideraciones para un plan integral para el reinicio de las clases en Puerto Rico.” In this plan, the Foundation outlines the top considerations when planning the re-opening process: physical health, food insecurity, mental and socio-emotional health, the digital gap, curriculum materials, student-teacher interaction, and academic balance, and special education. To re-open schools sometime in 2021, Puerto Rico’s private, public, and non-profit sectors need to develop an integral re-opening plan.
The Road Onwards
A report jointly published in August 2020 by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) [available in Spanish] reported that more than 160 million of these were students in Latin America and the Caribbean. UNESCO maintains a listing of national responses to COVID-19 in regards to education in Latin America and the Caribbean, which was last updated in September 2020 [available in Spanish]. A November 2020 press release from UNICEF reported that at the time of that writing, over 97% of schools in Latin America and the Caribbean were still closed, affecting more than 137 million students. That press release states that children in Latin America and the Caribbean have already lost on average four times more days of schooling (174 days) compared to the rest of the world. “In a region with more than 11 million cases of COVID-19 to date, most students are now at risk of missing out on an entire school year.” Prolonged school closures give rise to concern in five main areas- a deepening digital divide, loss of mental health support, student nutrition, the worsening of already existing inequities in connection to economic status, disability and gender, and an increase in abuse and violence against children. According to UNICEF, 90% of governments adopted some form of remote learning, reaching almost 70% of school children. However, the other 30% either do not have the necessary technology at home for remote learning, or were not reached by government remote learning efforts. At the greatest disadvantage in this regard are younger children and girls. Girls tend to have less frequent use of or access to household computers and the internet, and information and communication technology skills training tends to favor boys.
Caribbean territories, such as Puerto Rico, are absent or severely limited with associate membership at most international organizations and mechanisms. In these instances, we invite you to consult local sources for reliable data. In the case of Puerto Rico, please visit the Puerto Rico Public Health Trust and the Fundación Comunitaria de Puerto Rico.