Whether or not in-person learning should resume in Brazil has been a heated debate since last March, when local governments shut down schools across the country in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most students across the country’s 26 states since then have been without face-to-face classes, resulting in enormous costs for children, youth and their families.

Since then, principals, teachers, families and learners themselves have done their best to deal with this unprecedented scenario, adapting to the challenging realities of distance learning and latest surge of the virus. Despite their collective heroic responses, the shift to remote learning has been uneven, and schools are still struggling, constrained by lack of access to technology, connectivity, resources, among many other challenges.

The losses for children and youth during this time are many and inequities have been widening at unprecedented rates. There are three times more Black, Indigenous and brown students who have not received learning activities during the pandemic than white students, a result of the racial, regional and socioeconomic inequities that divide the country. Learning varies geographically: While the vast majority have had access to remote schooling in the southern, southeast and midwest areas of Brazil, only 52% of students have received any learning activity since March 2020 in the northern regions of the country, which are more rural and are low-income with few educational resources available.

Devastatingly — and yet not surprisingly — income plays a significant factor: A recent study from the World Bank has shown that students in the upper quintile of the income distribution will have, on average, a difference of almost three more academic years compared to their low-income peers. The risk of dropping out of school has also been increasing as schools remain closed, with 35% of parents reporting the risk of their children not going back. When considering only high school students, this rate is an alarming 58%.

The social-emotional development of children and youth is also at risk. The closing of schools has cut off access for children and youth to this vital channel for development, human connection and physical and emotional well-being; and many are suffering from depression, hopelessness and anxiety.

Deeply listening to the community is integral to the successful return of in-person classes. It’s important to recognize the valid concerns that many educators, parents and learners feel. Returning to in-person learning certainly causes anxiety and fear, especially as new variants of the virus continue to spread across Brazil and many other countries.
Nathalie Zogbi, Principal, Imaginable Futures

What We’re Learning about Reopening Schools Safely

There is some hope on the horizon: Early data illuminate how schools may reopen safely and support educators, learners and families navigate the process. A study from Vozes da Educação that Imaginable Futures funded with Fundação Lemann uses its findings from 21 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and North America to compare how they have handled the return to in-person learning. The study adds indispensable information for this debate and supports new public policies guided by science and data.

In the majority of countries analyzed, the return to in-person classes did not impact regional or national COVID-19 contamination curves. The study also suggests that education professionals do not face higher contamination risk than other professions, although the risk increases when there is significant contact between adults and youth over 16 years old.

In addition to the analysis, the report also offers promising reopening practices that Brazil and others may implement, including:

  • Phased re-opening with a stable or downward curve: Adopt a phased reopening approach for different grades, and during times when contagion rates are either stable or declining.
  • Public health protocols: Follow public health sanitary measures, including: the constant sanitizing of schools, enforcing physical distancing, decreasing capacity of classrooms, having shorter classroom days, providing alternating school days for students, measuring temperatures of students and more.
  • Adoption of specific policies for at-risk groups: Consider having different policies for educators who have high-risks of health complications due to COVID-19. In some countries, educators who were determined to high risk have been allowed to continue teaching remotely or go onto paid leave.
  • Monitoring and containing isolated cases: Monitor cases for potential outbreaks and isolate students that test positive and close schools as necessary. Understand that closing is not failure, but is part of the process of returning.

In addition to the promising practices above, deeply listening to the community is integral to the successful return of in-person classes. It’s important to recognize the valid concerns that many educators, parents and learners feel. Returning to in-person learning certainly causes anxiety and fear, especially as new variants of the virus continue to spread across Brazil and many other countries. Creating a line of open communications for parents to connect directly with teachers and principals can provide a safe space to have an open dialogue, and help them feel more comfortable about allowing their children to return to school. More information on these and many more promising practices can be found in the report in English here and in Portuguese here.

Final Thoughts

Now a full year into the pandemic, it's time and overdue to establish clear safety guidelines and next steps for Brazil to join the global community of schools who have reopened and resumed in-person learning. The concerns of our heroic educators and families are many, especially during the country’s worst surge, but Brazil must be ready for the constant adaptation and pivots necessary for safe re-opening. If we don't face this challenge head-on and united, we will be neglecting the growing inequities and the mental and emotional toll that are widening among learners and their families. As the debates continue on whether to open or keep schools closed, data and science must be the basis of these decisions, offering an alternative to the fiery spirit of polarization that has spread throughout the Brazilian public debate.

Our partner and founder of Vozes da Educação Carolina Campos shared with us recently that if schools in Brazil were allowed to re-open back in September, when the curve was low, we would have offered a dignified semester for our children. We agree. Our children need to be back when it’s safe to do so. Safety measures must be "new normal.” We cannot afford to keep schools closed indefinitely.