COVID-19: Key policy challenges for early childhood education in Latin America

29 March 2021


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The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted inequalities throughout Latin America, including the plight of children under five, and especially the most vulnerable. Governments throughout the region have implemented various strategies to ensure the development and well-being of children. However, a new study published by IIEP-UNESCO shows that the lack of specific information on young children and their households makes it difficult to monitor the effectiveness of measures taken for this important population group. 

The new publication (en español), by the IIEP-UNESCO Office for Latin America and with support from UNICEF and the Arcor Foundation, compares the situation of children in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru. It presents a set of indicators that offer a comprehensive look at the situation of early childhood before the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. It also analyses the main public policy responses aimed at guaranteeing the well-being of early childhood in the context of the pandemic in these countries.

Prior to COVID-19, the region already faced major challenges in implementing early childhood policies. According to the study, 72 million children below the age of 14 lived in poverty, 61% of children aged three to four years old attended an early childhood education programme, and 9% of children under five were stunted. The pandemic has intensified the situation for young children in the region and made the high levels of inequality even more evident. 

"Before the pandemic, major challenges for the implementation of policies aimed at the comprehensive development and well-being of early childhood in Latin America were already evident," say the authors of the recent IIEP research.

A new opportunity to rethink early childhood care and education 

The various policies and programmes implemented to mitigate the effects of the health crisis on early childhood care and education and, at the same time, the difficulty in analysing their effective implementation have created an opportunity to rethink early childhood care and education. In this sense, the researchers and authors of the study, Ana María Osorio and Ernesto Cárdenas, state that "today more than ever, governments need to put children at the centre of the agenda as part of the responses to the crisis generated by the pandemic.”

On the health front, the study suggests that while virtual or telephone medical consultations are intended to reduce the risk of infection, they increase the risk of families delaying or failing to detect illnesses that should be treated. In this sense, home medical visits in households with children under five years of age would be a more effective measure to ensure adequate health care in the context of the pandemic.

Regarding the food assistance initiatives implemented, the publication states that, despite ensuring the delivery of food, they do not guarantee that it is actually consumed in the recommended quantity and quality. Consequently, it suggests the reopening of the pre-existing channels that ensured food assistance to children before the pandemic under conditions of strict sanitary care.

In relation to the partial or total closure of schools, the study highlights the great challenges generated by this type of strategy, such as the need for teachers, caregivers, and students to have technological skills, for children to have access to computers and the internet, and for there to be an adult in the home to accompany the learning process. As a result, the reopening of schools and care centres is suggested, as long as the necessary sanitary and biosecurity conditions are guaranteed.

Finally, the document stresses the importance of expanding the supply and opening of public spaces for early childhood recreation. Given the long period of strict quarantine that children have gone through, the enjoyment of parks, among other green spaces, cannot be a privilege for a few people, but a right for all.