A pan­demic-era learn­ing curve

In Peru and around world, re­mote ed­u­ca­tion is deep­en­ing di­vide be­tween rich and poor


lima, peru — Hunched over a rick­ety ta­ble in his fam­ily’s three­room shanty, Mis­sael Soayne wrote dili­gently on a sheet of graph pa­per. It was Fri­day morn­ing, time for read­ing com­pre­hen­sion. His fa­ther, out of work, had warned him not to waste pa­per, so the baby-faced 14-year-old care­fully drew small, tight letters on the page.

Peru, the na­tion with the world’s high­est coro­n­avirus mor­tal­ity rate, is also one of dozens of coun­tries where schools re­main closed na­tion­wide be­cause of the pan­demic, with no re­open­ing date in sight. The quar­an­tine here is par­tic­u­larly se­vere; chil­dren 14 and un­der are per­mit­ted out of their homes only one hour per day.

Some fam­i­lies can af­ford workaround­s. Stu­dents from fam­i­lies wealthy enough to pay for pri­vate schools have kept their ed­u­ca­tions go­ing with pri­vate tu­tors and in­ter­ac­tive classes on home com­put­ers. Pub­lic-school stu­dents with In­ter­net ac­cess at home can ac­cess ex­tended lessons on­line.

Mis­sael has none of that. The son of a sin­gle fa­ther of four who lost his job dur­ing the pan­demic, Mis­sael has seen his ed­u­ca­tion re­duced to a 30-minute les­son broad­cast on state TV and phone texts con­tain­ing brief instructio­ns for the next day’s self­s­tudy. He sub­mits as­sign­ments to be graded through his fam­ily’s one cell­phone.

From the An­des to Africa to the United States, this is what fall­ing through the cracks looks like: a pan­demic gen­er­a­tion of poor chil­dren shut out of schools and learn­ing. Al­ready dis­ad­van­taged by poverty and in­equity, they are now in dan­ger of fall­ing fur­ther be­hind.

Glob­ally, roughly a third of the world’s school­child­ren, or nearly 600 mil­lion, re­main af­fected by pan­demic-re­lated school clo­sures, ac­cord­ing to UNICEF, the United Na­tions agency re­spon­si­ble for aid to chil­dren. Some 463 mil­lion chil­dren world­wide, UNICEF es­ti­mates, lack­ing In­ter­net, tele­vi­sion or radio, have been left with al­most no ac­cess to ed­u­ca­tion.

“We are see­ing very real dis­par­i­ties be­tween those chil­dren able to ac­cess re­mote learn­ing, and poor chil­dren, chil­dren in ru­ral ar­eas, ado­les­cent girls and dis­abled chil­dren who just don’t have equal ac­cess,” said Robert Jenk­ins, UNICEF’S ed­u­ca­tion chief.

In Peru, a mas­sive wave of un­em­ploy­ment is re­vers­ing the na­tion’s lauded suc­cess at fight­ing poverty, with con­se­quences that could last gen­er­a­tions. The num­ber of peo­ple liv­ing be­low the poverty line here is ex­pected to surge this year to 27 per­cent, a level not seen since the early 2000s.

Low-in­come Peru­vians have been hit dis­pro­por­tion­ally, rais­ing fears of fur­ther in­equal­ity in a re­gion al­ready among the most un­equal in the world. Al­ready, more poor chil­dren are leav­ing school: The na­tional high school dropout rate surged from 11.8 per­cent in 2019 to 17.9 per­cent this year. The rate for univer­sity stu­dents jumped from 12 per­cent to 19 per­cent. An­a­lysts fear a mass de­ser­tion next year, led by poor stu­dents un­able to fully ac­cess vir­tual ed­u­ca­tion.

Part of the prob­lem: Peru is try­ing to do re­mote learn­ing in a coun­try where only 1 in 3 house­holds has a home com­puter.

“The state needs to get its act to­gether, be­cause we can­not al­low ed­u­ca­tion to go from be­ing a right to be­com­ing a lux­ury,” said Ernesto Mos­quera, prin­ci­pal at the Cole­gio In­de­pen­den­cia, a pri­vate school in Lima’s up­scale Mi­raflo­res district.

The Peru­vian gov­ern­ment is ac­quir­ing 1 mil­lion tablet com­put­ers for chil­dren in ru­ral and poor ur­ban ar­eas. The 2021 bud­get in­cludes money to pay for In­ter­net ac­cess for more than 500,000 stu­dents and at least 50,000 teach­ers. The Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry’s goal is for the coun­try’s 18,000 schools to be con­nected to the In­ter­net by March 2021.

“We will re­turn to the class­room,” said Cecilia Ramírez, head of ba­sic ed­u­ca­tion for Peru’s Ed­u­ca­tion Min­istry. “But dis­tance learn­ing is go­ing to be a big part of the learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment go­ing for­ward.”

In­side her fam­ily’s roomy apart­ment, out­fit­ted with a roof deck over­look­ing one of Lima’s few golf cour­ses, Valentina Bus­ta­mante, 14, is tak­ing an av­er­age of six classes a day, start­ing at 9 a.m. and end­ing at 4 p.m. — her pre­co­ro­n­avirus sched­ule, ba­si­cally, but on a lap­top.

Her pri­vate school, the mul­ti­lin­gual, In­ter­na­tional Bac­calau­re­ate-af­fil­li­ated Euroamer­i­can Col­lege, has cre­ated a rich, com­put­er­based learn­ing en­vi­ron­ment. Stu­dents are en­cour­aged to en­gage on­line, rais­ing “vir­tual hands” to ask ques­tions. If she needs more help, teach­ers are avail­able for con­sul­ta­tion and tu­tor­ing af­ter classes, and stu­dents have formed break­out groups on­line to com­pare notes. Her mother, a tech­nol­ogy com­pany ex­ec­u­tive now work­ing from home, is also avail­able for sup­port.

“I felt much freer when we were in school, but I am cop­ing,” Valentina said.

Across town in the Cristo de Pacha­camilla slum, Mis­sael is also stuck in­side.

That’s where the sim­i­lar­i­ties end.

Mis­sael’s dif­fi­cul­ties are echoed through­out Lima’s poorer dis­tricts. In the neigh­bor­ing Villa María del Tri­unfo district, 13year-old cousins Fabrizio Ccapcha and Ben­jamin Tru­jillo take turns us­ing the fam­ily phone to read lessons and do home­work. If they need hard copies of as­sign­ments for, say, math or read­ing, they trudge down a rocky em­bank­ment and pay the equiv­a­lent of a penny to print, Fabrizio said.

The hard­est part, they said, is get­ting an adult to ac­com­pany them. Un­der the cur­rent cur­few, 13-year-olds aren’t al­lowed to leave home on their own.

“Math is hard for me, and ask­ing ques­tions in a text does not help,” Fabrizio said. “There are times when I just don’t get it.”

Mis­sael stared down at his small house’s painted ce­ment floor. Twenty-three hours a day, he’s home with his two sis­ters, 17 and 9, and his brother, 5.

“I miss my school,” he said. He misses his friends, his teacher and real-time feed­back on his work.

“I am try­ing to fol­low the classes by my­self, but it is very hard,” said the shy sixth-grader, who is days be­hind in his as­sign­ments. “I ask my fa­ther and sis­ter when I have ques­tions, but it’s not the same.”

Th­ese days, he said, math is eas­i­est, be­cause he can write out equa­tions, snap a photo and send it to his teacher via What­sapp. But writ­ing as­sign­ments are killers. He reads as­sign­ments on the phone, takes notes, writes out es­says, then types them on the fam­ily cell­phone’s tiny key­pad.

“I only get to use the phone when my dad comes home, and some­times that’s late at night,” he said. “My teacher has com­plained, but I don’t have any other way to do it.”

His school of­fered free text­books, but his fa­ther said he “did not have time” to pick them up. So Mis­sael re­lies on his older sis­ter’s old books, most of which are out­dated. He gets some feed­back by text from his teacher, but the re­sponses are usu­ally short.

Peru­vian ed­u­ca­tion au­thor­i­ties say grades, at this point, are less im­por­tant than mak­ing the ef­fort to par­tic­i­pate. Chil­dren, once as­sessed on a curve, now are graded pass-fail.

Mis­sael has ac­cess to the gov­ern­ment’s dis­tance learn­ing pro­gram, “I Learn at Home,” a 30minute tele­vised class for each grade. He watches at noon. His sib­lings watch their grades be­fore and af­ter him.

Some­times the con­tent is difficult to fol­low, he said, but that’s not the only chal­lenge. Even in the cap­i­tal, the sig­nal from the pub­lic sta­tion is spotty and of­ten flick­ers out. He some­times climbs on the roof to shift the an­ten­nae and im­prove re­cep­tion.

His fa­ther said he rec­og­nizes the hard­ships of learn­ing for his chil­dren. But as a sin­gle dad out of work, he said he’s strug­gling to even feed them, leav­ing lit­tle room for any­thing else.

If school does not re­open next year, Luis Al­berto Soayne said, he fears his son may join the grow­ing ranks of dropouts.

“I want what is best for my chil­dren,” he said. “But right now there are not many choices. I don’t know if he’ll want to con­tinue if schools do not re­open.”


Luis Al­berto Soayne checks on his chil­dren as they pre­pare for a day of re­mote learn­ing at home in Lima, Peru. Soayne, who lost his job in the pan­demic, wor­ries his 14-year-old son, Mis­sael, will drop out if schools do not re­open next year.

Paola López, a Lima-based tech­nol­ogy ex­ec­u­tive, is able to work from home. Here her 8-year-old daugh­ter, Fabi­ana Bus­ta­mante, runs in to ask for help with her home­work.

TOP: A laun­dry line with two masks over­look­ing Lima, Peru. MID­DLE: Shiori, 10, and her sis­ter, Paola, 2, have not been able to take on­line classes since the only cell­phone they owned stopped work­ing three months ago. ABOVE: The bed­room of Fabi­ana Bus­ta­mante, 8, who uses her mother’s lap­top for school.

Pho­tos by Daniela Rivera ANTARA for The Wash­ing­ton Post

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