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A pair of studies from UN agencies and other development groups paint a grim picture for a generation of Latin American students, who have lost almost half their school days since the pandemic started and whose reading and math skills are falling drastically behind.

Four-fifths of children at the end of primary school are now unable to understand a simple written text, up from half before the pandemic, according to the reports. Only sub-Saharan Africa has worse educational outcomes.

School closures in Latin America lasted longer than anywhere else except South Asia – an average of 225 days, compared with 141 days for schools around the world overall. Lack of access to computers and the internet means that many children dropped out or received poor instruction. Average scores in reading and math for third and sixth graders may be worse today than they were 10 years ago, wiping out a decade of modest advances, according to one report – and the effects could be permanent. Today’s students can expect to have 12 per cent lower incomes throughout their lifetime, meaning a loss of $1,565 in average annual earnings, the studies found.

“My biggest concern now is that this will really break the progress we were making slowly toward improving opportunities and reducing inequality, which is the biggest problem we have in Latin America,” said Carlos Felipe Jaramillo, the World Bank’s vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Latin America was already one of the world’s most unequal regions before the pandemic, and learning losses hit vulnerable groups particularly hard. In Brazil, for example, the World Bank report noted that only about one-third of students of African descent have access to a computer at home, compared to more than half of white students.

In rural areas, connectivity is even worse. Across Latin America, only one-quarter of households have access to the internet, although the rate varies by country. Girls, who were often expected to do household chores or care for sick relatives during the pandemic, suffered the most.

The report suggests returning to in-person classes, providing teachers support and training, and focusing on assessments to evaluate learning losses and create tailored programs for schools. Above all, the report says, reversing the damage from lost learning needs to become a priority for governments.

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