Six months after schools were closed due to Covid-19 isolation measures around South America, the continent’s two largest economies have yet to resume in-person classes, bar some sporadic experiments.
In the last three months, major cities in Brazil and Argentina have gradually resumed activities that may cause public gatherings. Bars in Buenos Aires reopened in early September, while shopping malls in São Paulo have been operating since as early as July — albeit with strict security protocols. In Rio de Janeiro, beaches have been busy since August, where mask use has been low. The city’s idyllic sands were packed on the national September 7 holiday.
Meanwhile, with this tentative return of leisure, neither country has made any significant progress on establishing specific protocols for educational facilities [restricted]to resume their in-person activities without jeopardizing the safety of students and their families. With little scientific information available on the effect of opening schools on the Covid-19 contagion curve — and the proximity of municipal elections in Brazil — the debate on opening schools is defined by the fear of families, opposition from teachers, and political calculations from politicians.
While they appear to be in the same boat, the neighboring countries have approached the issue in different ways, with a sudden change to distance learning.
Like in Brazil, the public education system in Argentina is mostly provincial, depending on local governments. But while Argentina’s Ministry of Education took the lead in putting forward guidelines to continue the school year, its counterparts in Brazil washed their hands of the problem, placing all of the responsibility on individual state administrations to work out their own rules.
Brazil: four Education Ministers in two years
Ivan Gontijo, project coordinator at NGO Todos pela Educação, points out that political instability in the field of education has also played an important role in the Brazilian Education Ministry’s lack of centralization in adopting schooling guidelines during the pandemic.
In less than two years of Jair Bolsonaro’s administration, Brazil has already had four Education Ministers — three of them during the pandemic. Another problem with the department, according to Mr. Gontijo, is the “very low technical capacity of execution” among occupants of high-level positions. “These are people who do not know the educational policy in-depth,” he says.
For Mr. Gontijo, an example of the Education Minister’s lack of interest in its own field of jurisdiction was the recent approval of the Basic Education Fund (Fundeb) in Congress — a process in which the department had practically no participation.
“The Education Ministry could have played a much more relevant role during the pandemic, with the provision of structured materials and increased connectivity for students who do not have internet access,” laments Mr. Gontijo. “We can’t say it would change the scenario, but it would certainly help municipal and state networks to go through this period in a more structured way.”
According to data from Inep, a research institute linked to the Education Ministry, in 2019, almost 80 percent of students in urban schools were enrolled in institutions of the Brazilian public basic education system — which ranges from early childhood education to high school.
The ICT Education survey of the same year, conducted by the Regional Center of Studies for the Development of the Information Society (Cetic.br), showed that among students in urban public schools, 31 percent had a desktop computer at home, 35% had a laptop, and 26% had a tablet. Among students in private schools, these rates jumped to 54% with a desktop computer, 71% with a laptop, and 44% with a tablet.
Inequality in access to tools for remote education is only the tip of the iceberg of a slow process of universalization of education that was only completed at the beginning of the 21st century. “Our difficulty was quality. We had universalized education, but we still couldn’t deliver quality education. In the pandemic, we regressed in terms of access to education. The poorest children didn’t have access to school activities this year,” laments Mr. Gontijo.
Argentina: federal government takes the lead
Indeed, federal involvement is one of the major education differences between Brazil and its neighbors south of the River Plate. In Argentina, the universalization of education took place almost a century earlier. Pablo Pineau, a Ph.D. in education from the University of Buenos Aires (UBA) and a university and high school teacher, believes that the long duration of widespread access to Argentinian education has played an important role in responding to the challenges of the pandemic. However, he says it is not the only factor he sees as a successful response in reducing the impact on education in the country.
“The pandemic is a biological and also a social fact. It was inevitable that something we knew only through science fiction would cause profound impacts on society as a whole and increase the distance in access to education,” Mr. Pineau analyzes. “There is an enormous force of expulsion and a not so great force of retention. If educational systems hadn’t responded so quickly, the distance would have been even greater.”
In July, the Argentinian Education Ministry published a report in which it analyzed the continuity of lessons for students from the country’s public and private systems. In evaluating factors such as the frequency of completing school tasks, communication between schools and families, and technologies used to carry out tasks, the department concluded that at the primary level, continuity in learning hit 97 and 98 percent in the public and private networks, respectively.
In secondary schooling, the difference was slightly greater, with 93 percent for students from the public network and 96 percent for private students.
This situation of relative parity has occurred even though access to tools for remote education remains unequal in Argentina. According to the same report, during the country’s isolation measures, 36 percent of primary public school students had access to a stable internet connection at home, compared to 65 percent of private school students.
“There is inequality in access to devices and connections. Then there is a second inequality, which is the use of technology. Finally, there is a third inequality in the educational use of technology. Whereas today everything is on the internet, before everything was in the library. But it is necessary to learn how to research and organize. What is clear is that technology and teaching are not the same things. Teaching is something more complex.”
Mr. Pineau points out that Argentina has seen precisely what Ivan Gontijo laments has not been possible in Brazil: a leading role of the federal government in the formulation of educational policies, with the production of radio and television programs and distribution of textbooks, but also “enormous creativity among teachers.”
“We are federal countries, but there is a national state. The provinces are not autonomous entities and the national state cannot respond as if the provinces were another country,” he argued. “It is necessary to guarantee the right to education of all students in the country. In Argentina, the federal government has taken on this responsibility.”[/restricted]