LIMA, Peru — Hunched over a rickety table in his family’s three-room 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 nationwide remain closed on account 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 schoolchildren with Internet 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 self-study. 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 schoolchildren 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, levels 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 a 4 p.m. — her pre-coronavirus schedule, basically, but on a laptop.
Her private school, the multilingual, International Baccalaureate-affilliated Euroamerican College, has created a rich, computer-based 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, 13-year 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 30-minute 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.”
Faiola reported from Miami.
This story was updated after publication with newly released information from UNICEF on the number of children out of school.