Hey teachers, (don’t) leave the kids alone! Connectivity and education disparities in times of COVID19

At the onset of the COVID19 outbreak, governments across the world rushed to close schools in an effort to slow the spread of the pandemic. By April 23, 191 countries had closed their schools, affecting 90% of all students in the world. In Latin America and the Caribbean, there are currently over  171 million students not attending classrooms.

While these policies remain in place, schools have instituted distance-learning initiatives to ensure that students continue learning. This is a particularly pressing need in our region, where over half of children are already considered “learning poor” (meaning that they are unable to read a short age-appropriate text with comprehension around age 10). However, ensuring that these initiatives reach all students equally—regardless of socioeconomic status, disability status, gender, or geographic location is a critical challenge.

This #GraphForThought uses data from the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) to explore how inequalities in access to essential distance-learning tools (such as internet, computer, TV, or a desk to study at) may deepen educational inequalities during COVID-19.

The graph below plots the gap in access to basic tools required for distance learning between students in the poorest and the richest of six household income brackets in LAC countries for which data is available. Systematically, children in the richest income group are more likely to have access to the tools necessary for virtual learning. While the gaps are largest for access to internet and desktop computers, gaps also emerge in more basic elements such as access to a desktop to study at.  In the Dominican Republic, for example, those in the richest quintile are twice as likely to have access to a desktop, in Mexico they are twice as likely to have a computer, and in Panama while close to all children in the highest income bracket can access the internet, only about 40% of those at the bottom can.

Understanding and addressing students’ unequal access to distance learning tools is a critical first step in designing policies that prevent educational losses and a widening of achievement gaps across the digital divide. This means expanding the type of distancing learning methods used to include alternatives such as radio or TV, which kids can access almost universally in LAC. Countries such as Peru, Costa Rica and  Chile have already taken steps to provide educational content through local TV stations. According the Center for Global Development’s COVID-19 education policy tracking database, 17 countries in the region use online-only methods, 9 countries use online + radio + TV methods, 5 countries use online + TV methods, and 1 country uses radio + TV methods.

Beyond access to tools for distance-learning, as children receive schooling at home, they are likely to fall back on parents for support with lessons. Concretely, if a student’s learning outcomes become (more) dependent on their parents’ abilities during school closures, then similar students with different parents’ abilities (or education, as it is impossible to measure abilities) will likely have different outcomes. Moreover, since parent education highly correlates with household income level, it is likely that in poor households, poorly educated parents will have a more limited capacity to support their children’s learning process than in rich households.

The data shows that in the poorest income brackets of each country, between 10-40% of mothers have university education while in the richest the figure is at least 50%. Hence, when children stop going to school, peer effects may play less of a role while a parent effect acquires greater importance.

Ultimately, a household’s previous stocks of assets (whether physical capital in the form of connectivity or human capital in the form of parents’ education), matters immensely for enabling the accumulation of human capital of children in the present. In the context of COVID19, prevailing inequalities in a household’s asset-base are likely to play an even larger role in perpetuating future inequalities, not only reducing children’s human capital accumulation in the present but also impacting their long-run labor market outcomes.

Can this crisis become an opportunity when it comes to much needed investments in education? Investing in universal coverage of connectivity, both of schools and households, for example, could be a key element for inclusion and one that, given the benefits versus costs, should be a key pillar of any strategy to build a more equitable “new normal” after the shock.