Future Tense

The Damage of Mexico’s Pandemic School Closures Has Been Catastrophic

An elementary-school student sits at a desk wearing a mask and face visor.
A girl attends a class in Mexico City on June 7, during the brief time when schools there were open again. Claudio Cruz/Getty Images

Soon before June 7, Mexico’s nationwide official school start date, Sonia received a message from the principal at her children’s elementary school in Mexico City: “Are you aware that the school, in terms of infrastructure, after 14 months of absence, requires thorough cleaning, pruning of overgrown plants, washing the water tank, fixing of the lighting and repainting?”

The letter went on to ask parents if they could donate money to buy supplies or help carry out the physical work. It was a painful request. Like millions of other families in Mexico, Sonia’s has lost most of their income as a result of the pandemic. Paying the monthly internet bill so her two young children are able to access virtual classes has been a struggle. When she and her sister-in-law called to ask why the government wasn’t doing the work to get the school ready for classes, they quickly realized that the principal was even more frustrated than they were. She told Sonia and her sister-in-law that a team from the Ministry of Education had come to the school and filled out a document saying that they had cleaned and fixed up the school even though they had done nothing more than walk through the patio for a couple of minutes. We are on our own,” the principal said to them.

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Sonia’s is just one of more than 230,000 schools across Mexico that finally welcomed students and teachers back, after 14 months of complete shutdown. As they did so, they battled against improvised and incomplete government plans. In March 2020, Mexico’s federal government (which sets nationwide school curricula in a highly centralized fashion that would be unthinkable in U.S.) announced mandatory countrywide school closures and offered a “Learn from Home” program that would rely heavily on TV as a surrogate teacher. This was the remotest of remote learning. In many schools students and teachers didn’t even stay connected; instead, students and their families were expected to keep pace with televised lessons supplemented by national lesson plans online. Some teachers sought to stay in touch with their students despite the lack of public support or plan for doing so. But a mere two months into the pandemic the Ministry of Education admitted that 20 percent of all students had already lost touch with their schools.

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Mexico is one of only 23 countries worldwide that kept its schools closed so long. Early in the pandemic, the government announced an agreement with the national teacher’s union: Nobody would return to school until the traffic-light system that categorizes COVID risks by state had reverted back to a full green. At the time, green was interpreted as the end of the pandemic, the all-clear, and thus the deal with the union compromised Mexico’s ability to explore hybrid models of a timelier return to school, even after restaurants, bars, and most businesses were back to operating as before.

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In the runup to the country’s midterm elections in Mexico on June 6, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador announced that the day after the elections, the COVID traffic-light would change to green in Mexico City to allow for in-school learning. The announcement was immediately seen as a craven electoral ploy since it lacked concrete planning. The lack of information and a clear, articulated strategy from authorities left principals and teachers concerned about their school’s ability to keep students safe. Across the country photos were taken of school staff spraying down young students with disinfectants and solutions of chlorine and water as they walked into schools. Less than two weeks later, the Mexico City COVID light reverted back to yellow, and classes have been canceled indefinitely in the nation’s capital.

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Across the rest of the country only 19 states out of 32 are in green at the time of publication of this article. But even in those states attendance is voluntary, and many schools have been unable to start classes before the end of the school year on Friday. The federal government, in charge of establishing the national school calendar, recently announced that the new school year will officially begin on Aug. 30 (late by Mexican standards). The Ministry of Education has been vague about its willingness to consider hybrid models if states are not categorized as green come September. Teachers, parents, and students remain uncertain about what to expect and how to plan for the months ahead.

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School closures have not only accentuated Mexico’s gaps in educational inequality, but for the most vulnerable families they have also unleashed a crisis in school dropouts. In February of this year, the civil society organization Mexicanos Primero calculated that the number of students at risk of dropping out of K-12 school had already reached 5.6 million. Without a national, well-thought-out institutional strategy to recapture these students, the drop-out number will probably end up being higher.

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Since March 3, UNICEF had called on the Mexican government to return to face-to-face instruction, citing the learning crisis that existed in Mexico even before the pandemic began: 80 percent of elementary students fail to reach expected levels in reading comprehension and math for their age, a problem that will increase significantly given the scarcity of resources many of these kids can count on at home. Returning to face-to-face classes this fall is essential, though the federal government’s planning (or lack thereof) doesn’t instill much confidence. Without powerful remedial measures, the World Bank estimates that the learning loss that has already occurred is going to cost Mexican students, on average, 8 percent of their future income..

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In the coming weeks and months, students and teachers who do have the opportunity to return to school will continue to face enormous challenges in re-establishing meaningful education. Because of the enormous disparities in levels of real learning at home over the past year, students will return to the classroom with very different experiences. Some students may have learned well at home, but most will have failed to complete the curriculum, and unfortunately there will be those who have even forgotten what they learned previously. In the classroom, learning gaps will be paired with very challenging socio-emotional conditions. In March revised numbers placed Mexico second in the world in COVID deaths only after the U.S.  (even though Mexico has less than half of the U.S. population). In addition, this past year has seen the highest increase of criminal investigations into family violence since such crimes began to be registered nationally.

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Faced with the most important educational crisis of our generation, Mexico’s Ministry of Education has focused its strategy on simple promises of water, soap, and face masks, along with taking student temperatures as they enter school grounds and maintaining social distance in the classroom. But a lack of current data on school conditions, the deterioration of infrastructure, and insufficient funding cast a serious doubt on whether even these basic promises can be kept. More than a year ago, Undersecretary Marcos Bucio admitted to the Education Commission of the Chamber of Deputies that at least 46,515 schools—23 percent of the country’s total—did not even have running tap water, much less clean drinking water.

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To date, the federal government has not announced budget increases or a plan to provide schools with much-needed maintenance. The press has already documented that at least 7,000 schools have been robbed over the past year, leaving them without computers, tables, chairs, and, in some cases, without pipes. But overall, the true toll of the pandemic on education in terms of students left behind, and school infrastructure, is unknown and will remain so, absent thorough surveys. Then there’s the related question of: Who is going to cover these losses?

It’s a question the Mexican government, which runs the capital’s school system directly, has made no effort to answer. Without federal money, families will foot the bill for the return to school, just like they got stuck covering the cost of their exile from school as well.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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