Schools are so much more than buildings. They are a place for student learning, community gathering, peer connection and sustaining the basic needs of learners. For much of 2020, to the detriment of learners, families and communities, schools in Brazil, and around the world, have been closed and learning disrupted. In addition to the devastating millions of lost lives, numerous social and economic challenges have emerged from the pandemic. Among them, arguably one of the most significant—and which will profoundly affect the coming years —is equitable and consistent access to learning.
Partnering with Lemann Foundation and Itaú Social, we commissioned Datafolha, a leading research group specializing in public opinion polls in Brazil to investigate the impact of school closures on students and their families. Data has been collected since May and will continue through December 2020.
The most recent findings highlight a few bright spots. Even though they have not been able to fully measure the quality of the learning experience, it suggests that access to education has increased as the pandemic has progressed. According to data collected in September 2020, 92% of Brazilian students had engaged in some form of school activity, whether online or through printed materials, which is a 13 percentage point increase when compared to the July 2020 survey. Likewise, the rate of engagement has increased, with 80% of students having completed some sort of school activity in the last week, compared to 68% in July. And while over one-third of households have no internet connection, teachers, schools and governments, both municipal and state, were able to create different learning materials beyond e-learning platforms feasible, with classes via radio, TV or via printed materials distributed periodically.
Persistent Challenges and Heroic Responses
While wide accessibility of education in Brazil is a silver lining during these times, the surveys have also brought to light troubling indicators of persistent challenges such as the varying quality of remote classes alongside inequitable access to connectivity and other basic services and perhaps worse the threat of massive dropout. Alongside these challenges, the data highlighted incredible stories of learners and educators persisting in the face of adversity.
Challenges with Remote Learning
Many families in the 1021 survey sample size* expressed concerns and challenges with remote learning. Despite the wide availability, only 64% indicated that remote classes were sufficient to guarantee student learning. While the majority of families surveyed (74%) believe schools should remain closed, more than half of them agree that remote learning has led to losses on students learning and development. Parents also worry about their children not returning to school: an alarming 30% indicated that students are at risk of dropping out of school due to fear of not being able to follow activities; and a worrisome 36% of the families believe that their children will not return to school in an eventual reopening of the facilities.
Challenges with Equitable Access by Region, Socioeconomic Status and Race
While learning and engagement as a whole has increased, it’s critical to remember that these outcomes are not evenly distributed. According to earlier Datafolha surveys, student learning and engagement varied by region, family socioeconomic status and race. Regional inequalities are also large: in the North region just over half of the students (52%) received school activities in the pandemic, and in the Northeast, 61%. In contrast, in the South, 94%, followed by the Southeast, 85%, and the Midwest, 80%.The survey in July uncovered that the percentage of students considered to be at risk of dropout is higher among Black students, in homes with more than three students, when families have less education and lower income, and among students that have to share study equipment.
Student Basic Needs and Family Financial Stability
The pandemic is not only wreaking havoc in student learning, but also on student hunger and family financial stability. The latest survey indicates that 42% of families interviewed agree that the lack of school meals for their children is impacting their income. Understanding the role of education in promoting the integral development of their students, several schools aoond school networks used complementary strategies to provide, among other aspects, food and intersectoral support for families during the pandemic.
Teachers Play an Integral Role for Student Engagement
Teachers have the power to make a significant impact on student learning and engagement during this time. Nearly all respondents believe teacher support is important or very important for home learning continuity and 71% indicated that they started to value the role of teachers more after the pandemic started. Facing the challenge of engaging their students remotely, many teachers are exploring different innovative pedagogical methods and implementing an integrated curriculum that engages students, families while promoting dialogue with their realities.
Inequality and Future Concerns
The surveys also raise a flag not only for the remote schooling experience and inequitable access to learning, but also for the future reopening of schools. While 74% of the families said they trust the ability of schools to maintain safety protocols, there is a shared concern among education and health specialists on guaranteeing that all schools are truly safe for students and education workers during the pandemic.
For example, recent findings published by the municipal audit office of São Paulo, the largest and most prominent economic hub in the country, showed that over 25% of elementary schools in the city didn’t have toilet paper. The availability of hand soap was also an issue: Only a quarter of schools had soap available for students. Other studies show that both elementary and high school public institutions in Brazil have one of the highest ratios of students per teachers and total of students in classrooms in the world. This data warrants a specific focus on strategies to maintain social distancing when classes eventually return.
It is time to focus on improving both access and quality and moreover on reaffirming schools and education as a basis to recreate present and future societies based on justice, inclusion, compassion and democracy.
Publishing and disseminating data is fundamental to support governments in diagnosing and understanding present challenges, and an important component of Imaginable Futures’ commitment to help Brazil develop a more equitable educational system during and beyond the pandemic. The difficulties are many, but as measured by the research, the Brazilian population values and believes in the Brazilian school.
We need to continue to work collaboratively to help families engage their children in learning activities and diversify learning materials, platforms and ways that address different students' needs. We need coordinated local action between state and municipal governments, schools, health institutions, and other organizations. At the same time, we must value the positive learnings from teachers, schools, governments and families, and ensure not only safe conditions for the return of all students, but also to take advantage of this moment and rethink pedagogical practices and the school's role within Brazilian communities. It is time to focus on improving both access and quality and moreover on reaffirming schools and education as a basis to recreate present and future societies based on justice, inclusion, compassion and democracy.
*Note: Datafolha surveyed over the phone 1021 families with children ages 6 to 18 years old following the stratification from the Brazilian Educational Census from 2019. The sample was then adjusted according to different criteria such as the country's region, educational level and school system’s administrative sphere, weighting the results when needed.