Covid-19 widens the education gap between rich and poor students

While private students in Brazil are buried in homework and trying to adjust to online classes, public school students are being left to fend for themselves

As the Covid-19 pandemic hit Brazil, schools were the first establishments to close. Now, over a month into social isolation measures, the stark inequality of the country has created two parallel realities for children and teenagers of school-going age. In private education, students are trying to adapt to having classes remotely and facing tons of homework, while children from public schools face the challenge of learning alone, and maintaining nutrition without their free school lunches. 

While the entire country has been deeply affected by the harsh break in routines, education is set to be one of the sectors that will carry the lasting effects of the pandemic for a long time. [restricted]On April 1, the Jair Bolsonaro administration issued a provisional decree that suspends the obligation of having 200 days in the school year, as long as schools provide a minimum of 800 hours required by law. Consulted by The Brazilian Report, Education Ministry representatives said it will be up to each institution to define their norms and scheduling. 

Without common guidelines, the disparity in availability of resources between schools starts to show. While private institutions have been able to partner with online services such Microsoft Teams to keep up with coursework, public schools have to deal with the socio-economic challenges of many of their students, whose parents lost their income and often do not have access to computers or internet at home. 

According to information published on the Education Ministry’s website, remote learning activities may be adopted during the pandemic and considered as part of the year’s coursework, as long as they are authorized by state or municipal authorities. 

“States, municipalities, and private institutions must work to provide access to education for all students. (…) Schools must adopt their own mechanisms to provide content and follow-up on the student’s participation in activities,” says the ministry, adding that, when distance education is not possible, schools must find ways to make up for the missed content, without going into further detail.    

The National Education Council is preparing guidelines to help schools adjust to the new reality of distance learning while also preparing for a return to lessons. The documents are expected to clarify which methods the schools may use, including delivering materials to children at their homes and broadcasting classes on the TV, radio, and internet.

In the city of São Paulo, the municipal school system is asking families to update their students’ records, in order to receive learning material at their homes. But the stark reality of access is evident from step one: ideally, parents should update this information online, but as many don’t have internet access, they will have the option of carrying it out by phone. 

Increasing the gap

As we showed in our December 3 story, Brazil’s low average at the OECD’s Pisa test — one of the most comprehensive assessments of education levels around the world — shows how Brazilians students are lagging behind their international peers. However, differences are even starker when you compare different income levels and regions within the country. 

According to the University of São Paulo’s Education professor Daniel Cara, member of the Brazilian Campaign for the Right to Education, this gap may widen depending on the strategies adopted to overcome the pandemic. The fairest way to make sure Brazilian children won’t be harmed by the period without lessons is by adopting a comprehensive approach, including extra school hours and classes on Saturdays once the pandemic is over, or even extending the school year to 2021. In his view, distance education is a valid resource to keep children engaged while they are away from school, but cannot replace regular classes.  

“Online education is very present in high-level schools, where families may support their kids and they have more access to resources. [The pandemic] isn’t good even for them, but somehow these children are protected and finding solutions. But if this is adopted in public schools, where the needs of these children were not met before, imagine in long-distance education,” he told The Brazilian Report.

“I believe that distance education may be used as a support to keep in touch with students, but as part of all the other strategies. School managers have the obligation to keep in touch with students, to find alternatives for their development, such as homework, and also take care of their mental health in this period. You cannot consider this as a normal school year.” 

In his view, loosening the school calendar was a rushed measure, as it is impossible to know for sure how long social isolation measures will last. If schools are closed for six months, completing 800 hours of learning before the end of the year would be impractical. 

Moreover, the disruption in crucial learning stages such as literacy may cause irreplaceable delays in students’ education, extending the learning gap between the wealthy and poor in Brazil even further.

“You run the risk of having consequences, but this will only harm children’s development if the school year moves forward in a normal way. Brazil has to determine the tactics for the return [to lessons] before the end of isolation,” said Mr. Cara, adding that it must include a fund to provide better resources to teachers, including overtime.

Extreme poverty

Besides the huge challenges regarding learning, Brazilian public schools are dealing with another major issue: how to continue providing food safety to their students.

Currently, the National School Meals Program (PNAE), is responsible for feeding 40 million students in Brazilian public schools — of which 13 million of them live in extreme poverty. The initiative is a worldwide renowned example of food security, as it provides up to five meals a day for children that, otherwise, wouldn’t have access to them. However, the service has stopped with the closure of schools.

In São Paulo, the state government announced the Meals at Home program, providing students with BRL 55 to buy food, and BRL 110 for the most vulnerable. However, the first payments were only distributed as of April 8, after almost a month of social isolation. The measure is expected to reach 732,000 low-income families during April and May at a total cost of BRL 80 million, and it may be extended for future months.

In Rio de Janeiro, where schools remained open to feed children in early March, the municipal Education Department distributed baskets of basic necessities after all school activities were stopped by a court order. The municipal government is also organizing the distribution of a voucher to meet the feeding needs of up to 80,000 children. The state government followed suit and announced the distribution of a BRL 100 voucher with the same purpose.

On a national level, help is still on its way. The law that allowed the distribution of food purchased with PNAE funds was signed on April 7, as we covered on our Covid-19 live blog,  but the Education Ministry published nationwide rules to distribute it on April 13.[/restricted]

By Natália Scalzaretto

Natália Scalzaretto has worked for companies such as Santander Brasil and Reuters, where she covered news ranging from commodities to technology. Before joining The Brazilian Report, she worked as an editor for Trading News, the information division from the TradersClub investor community.