COVID-19 can widen educational gaps in Latin America: some lessons for urgent policy action

Education - Health

COVID-19, like most crises, is exacerbating inequalities in the region (OECD, 2020a). To contain the pandemic, most Latin American countries have closed their schools, affecting the learning of 154 million students (UNICEF, 2020). However, not all students are affected equally. While distance education can contribute to alleviate the immediate impacts of school closures, it requires several conditions to deliver meaningful results. Pupils from poorer socio-economic backgrounds tend to suffer the most and risk bearing lasting consequences in terms of learning outcomes and, ultimately, opportunities (Patrinos, and Psacharopoulos, 2018; Collins et al., 2020). In particular, three interconnected dimensions stand out.

First, school closures affect all schools and therefore all students, but the level of impact varies according to the readiness of schools, principals and teachers to “go digital” and confront the current circumstances. The slow incorporation of digital tools into learning has limited the development of skills that now, with schools closed, are needed to address alternative learning strategies that use Information and Communications Technology (ICTs) (OECD, 2020b).

Few schools were adequately equipped for digital learning before the pandemic in the region. Based on PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) 2018 results, only one third of the region’s 15-year-old students have access to an effective online learning support platform at school compared to almost two thirds in OECD countries. [1] And within countries, only 20% of 15-year-old students attending socio-economic disadvantaged schools can access to an effective online learning support platform, compared to 50% of those attending advantaged schools. Given their digital capacities, schools may reinforce rather than moderate students’ relative disadvantage (OECD, 2020b).

Furthermore, few teachers in socio-economic disadvantaged schools were sufficiently prepared to deliver distance education through digital tools. On average, similar to OECD countries, more than a half of 15-year-old students attend schools whose principals consider that teachers have the necessary technical and pedagogical skills to integrate digital devices into the curricula. However, within countries, the difference between disadvantaged and advantaged schools is particularly striking. In Argentina, Brazil and Colombia the gap is larger than 20 percentage points (vs. less than 10 percentage points in OECD countries) (Figure 1). This highlights the vast training needs that lie ahead for disadvantaged schools in some countries of the region (OECD, 2020b).

Second, school closures affect households differently depending on their access and use of digital devices. The pandemic has shed light on the digital divide in Latin American households (OECD et al., forthcoming). As systems move to e-learning, the digital divide in connectivity, access to devices and skill levels take on more weight (OECD, 2020c). In contrast to decades ago, thanks to advances in new technologies and Internet access, remote learning is possible. However, despite improvements in the region during the past years, only a fraction of students, parents and families have the infrastructure and skills to benefit from the advantages that technological tools have to offer.

Only 34% of primary, 41% of secondary and 68% of tertiary education students have access to an Internet-connected computer at home. [2] In particular, socio-economic differences are enormous, and therefore studying online is difficult for students from poor and vulnerable households in Latin America. For instance, less than 14% of poor students (those living with less than USD 5.5 per day, PPP 2011) in primary education have a computer connected to Internet at home vs. more than 80% of affluent students (those living with more than USD 70 per day, PPP 2011) with the same education level (Figure 2).  

Third, school closures significantly affect students in households with less reliable support from their parents. Socio-economically disadvantaged students were already in an unfavourable education position before the crisis. In fact, students’ socio-economic status has a powerful influence on performance in the region. Secondary students from disadvantaged backgrounds are four times more likely to be low performers than the rest of their peers, compared to two times more likely than in OECD countries (OECD, 2016). In Brazil and Uruguay, the most disadvantaged 15-year-old students trailed behind their most advantaged peers in science by the equivalent of four school years (OECD, 2018).

Parents’ skills and their capacity to help students use technology for learning contribute to widening gaps. Advantaged students are more likely to have parents with higher levels of cognitive and digital skills who can support distance learning (OECD, 2020c). In the region, most of the poorest parents have not finished secondary school and rarely use ICTs other than mobile phones. In Argentina, for example, only two out of five adults living with primary school students in the poorest decile of income distribution have a secondary degree and one out of five used a computer in the last three months. In contrast, almost all adults living with primary school students in the richest decile completed secondary education and more than four out of five used a computer in the last three months (INDEC, 2018).

The availability of a study space at home is another source of disparity. On average, 18% of 15-year-old students in Latin America- and over 25% in Colombia and Mexico – do not have a quiet place to study at home. Even in Chile, the top performer in the region, one out of five students attending the bottom quarter of disadvantaged schools have no space to study at home (OECD, 2020b).

Although the pandemic’s effects on education are not yet measurable, it is possible to make an informed guess. Advantaged students, usually among the top performers, will probably continue learning almost as if schools were open. On the other hand, disadvantaged students, usually among the worst performers, could fall further behind (Aroob Iqbal et al., 2020). In general, disadvantaged students tend to experience bigger learning losses when out of school, for example during vacation or teacher strikes (Alexander, Entwisle and Olson, 2001; Quinn et al., 2016). On average across subjects and grades, poor students lose about three more months of learning than their middle-income peers do every summer, due mainly to lack of educational material at home (Cooper et al., 1996; Evans and Yuan, 2018; Busso and Camacho Munoz, 2020). This is being replicated during lockdowns.

To overcome both school closures and the digital divide, and therefore prevent the deepening of educational inequality during the pandemic, school systems in the region have drawn on their experiences in reaching remote areas and mass media education broadcasting. Education leaders and teachers, in close collaboration with local authorities and the private sector, have expanded access to the Internet in specific zones and provided students with ICT tools. They have also combined online platform learning with WhatsApp, mobile or social media, traditional media (television, radio) and printed materials delivered to students and parents without Internet access.

These efforts should be strengthened and further actions are needed. First, COVID-19 has shed light on the fact that not all education systems and schools are equally prepared to ensure remote learning. Online learning support from schools to students, including teacher training, must be improved. Second, digital technology only translates into better education performance for students who have access to ICTs and have been able to develop strong cognitive and digital skills. To reduce inequalities, all students must have access to digital infrastructure, facilities, equipment and content. However, access is not enough. Targeted support is necessary for less advantaged students and their families to benefit from technology by building foundational, cognitive and digital skills. Finally, students’ socio-economic backgrounds shape how they learn at home, putting extra pressure on the region’s long-standing educational gap. Today, more than ever, targeted income and non-monetary support is needed for the most vulnerable segments of the society. Good policy responses to the COVID-19 crisis can accelerate transformation in education systems and reduce socio-economic disparities with positive and lasting effects.

1. Latin American average figures refer to simple averages on countries participating in PISA 2018: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay.

2. Latin American average figures refer to simple averages on countries that ask about ICT in their nationally representative household survey. Countries covered are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay.


Aroob Iqbal, S. et al. (2020), “We should avoid flattening the curve in education – Possible scenarios for learning loss during the school lockdowns” The World Bank, Washington, DC,

Alexander, K., Entwisle D.  and Olson L.  (2001), “Schools, achievement, and inequality: A seasonal perspective,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 171-191,

Busso, M. and J. Camacho Munoz (2020), “Pandemic and inequality: How much human capital is lost when schools close?”, IDB Improving Lives, Inter-American Development Bank, Washington, DC,

Collis, V. et al. (2020), “Lost Wages: The COVID-19 Cost of School Closures,” Policy Research working paper; no. WPS 9246; COVID-19 (Coronavirus). Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group.

Cooper, H. et al. (1996), “The effects of summer vacation on achievement test scores: A narrative and meta-analytic review”, Review of Educational Research, Vol. 66, No. 3, pp. 227-268,

Evans, D. and F. Yuan (2018), “Equivalent years of schooling: A metric to communicate learning gains in concrete terms,” World Bank Policy Research Working Paper No. WPS 8752, World Bank Group, Washington, DC,

INDEC (2018), National Household Survey [Encuesta Permanente de Hogares] (database).,  Argentina  (accessed 21 April 2020).

OECD (2020a), COVID-19 in Latin America and the Caribbean: socio-economic implications and policy priorities, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2020b), Learning Remotely When Schools Close: How Well Are Students and Schools Prepared? Insights from PISA, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2020c), A helping hand: Education responding to the coronavirus pandemic, OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2018), PISA 2018 Database (database), OECD Publishing, Paris,

OECD (2016), PISA 2015 Results (Volume I): Excellence and Equity in Education, OECD Publishing, Paris. DOI:

OECD et al. (forthcoming), Latin American Economic Outlook 2020, OECD Publishing, Paris.

Patrinos, H. and G. Psacharopoulos (2018), “Returns to investment in education: a decennial review of the global literature” Policy Research Working Paper No. 8402, World Bank, Washington, DC,

Quinn, D.M. et al. (2016), “Seasonal dynamics of academic achievement inequality by socioeconomic status and race/ethnicity: Updating and extending past research with new national data”, Vol. 45, Iss. 8, pp. 443-453,

UNICEF (2020), “Covid 19: More than 95 per cent of children are out of school in Latin America and the Caribbean”, UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean, Panama,

Share this