Many parents in the neighborhood make their living as recyclers, traversing the city with wooden wheelbarrows hitched to their backs. And many of their children don’t have computers, internet or family members who can help with class work. Often there is one cellphone for the family, leaving students scrambling for any connection to school.

Ms. Vásquez dropped out at 14 to help raise her siblings, and it has been her greatest regret. The motel she cleans is far from home, sometimes forcing her to leave her children for more than a day — 24 hours for her shift, with at least four hours of commuting. Even so, she rarely makes the country’s monthly minimum wage.

She had hoped her children — Ximena, 8, Emanuel, 12, Maicol, 13, and Karen, 15 — whom she calls “the motor of my life,” would leave the neighborhood, if only they could get through this never-ending pandemic with their schooling intact.

“I’ve always said that we have been dealt a difficult hand,” but “they have a lot of desire to learn,” she said.

Before the virus arrived, her children attended public schools nearby, wearing the colorful uniforms typical for Colombian pupils. Karen wanted to be a doctor. Maicol, a performer. Emanuel, a police officer. Ximena was still deciding.

By late May, the two boys were still officially enrolled in school, but barely keeping up, trying to fill out the work sheets their teachers sent via WhatsApp each week. They have no computer, and it costs Ms. Vásquez 15 cents a page to print the assignments, some of which are dozens of pages long. Sometimes, she has the money. Sometimes not.

Both girls had dropped out altogether. Ximena lost her spot at school just before the pandemic last year because she had missed classes, a not-so uncommon occurrence in Colombia’s overburdened schools. Then, with administrators working from home, Ms. Vásquez said she couldn’t figure out how to get her daughter back in.

Karen said she had lost contact with her instructors when the country went into lockdown in March 2020. Now, she wanted to return, but her family had accidentally broken a tablet lent to her by the school. She was terrified that if she tried to re-enroll, she would be hit with a fine her mother had no money to pay.

The family was already reeling because Ms. Vásquez’s hours at the motel had been cut during the crisis. Now they were four months behind on rent.

Ms. Vásquez was particularly worried about Maicol, who struggled to make sense of work sheets about periodic tables and literary devices, each day more frustrating than the last.

Lately, when he wasn’t recycling, he’d go looking for scrap metal to sell. To him, the nights out with his uncle were a welcome reprieve, like a pirate’s adventure: meeting new people, searching for treasure — toys, shoes, food, money.

But Ms. Vásquez, who had forbidden these jaunts, grew incensed when she heard he was working. The more time Maicol spent with the recycling cart, she feared, the smaller his world would become.

She respected the people who gathered trash for a living. She’d done it when she was pregnant with Emanuel. But she didn’t want Maicol to be satisfied with that life. During her shifts at the motel, cleaning bathrooms, she imagined her children in the future, sitting behind computers, running businesses.

“‘Look,’ people would say, ‘those are Gloria’s kids,’” she said. “They don’t have to bear the same destiny as their mother.”

Over the last year, school began in earnest only after she came home from work. One afternoon, she pulled out a study guide from Emanuel’s teacher, and began dictating a spelling and grammar exercise.

“Once upon a time,” she read.

“Once upon a time,” wrote Emanuel, 12.

“There was a white and gray duck —”

“Gray?” he asked.

When it came to Maicol’s more advanced lessons, Ms. Vásquez was often lost herself. She didn’t know how to use email, much less calculate the area of a square or teach her son about planetary rotations.

“I try to help them with what I understand,” she said. “It’s not enough.”

Lately, she’d become consumed by the question of how her children would catch up when — or if? — they ever returned to class.

The full educational toll of the pandemic will not be known until governments bring children back to school, experts warn. Ms. Di Gropello, of the World Bank, said she feared that many more children, especially poorer ones without computers or internet connections, would abandon their educations once they realize how far behind they’ve fallen.

By mid-June, Colombia’s education ministry announced that all schools would return to in-person courses after a July vacation. Though the country is enduring a record number of daily deaths from the virus, officials have determined that the cost of staying closed is too great.

But as school principals scramble to prepare for the return, some wonder how many students and teachers will show up. At Carlos Albán Holguín, one of the schools in Ms. Vásquez’s neighborhood, the principal said some instructors were so afraid of infection that they had refused to come to the school to pick up the completed assignments their pupils had dropped off.

One recent morning, Karen woke before dawn, as she often does, to help her mother get ready for her shift at the motel. Since leaving school last year, Karen had increasingly taken on the role of parent, cooking and cleaning for the family, and trying to protect her siblings while their mother was at work.

At one point, the responsibility got to be so much that Karen ran away. Her flight lasted just a few hours, until Ms. Vásquez found her.

“I told my mother that she had to support me more,” Karen said. “That she couldn’t leave me alone, that I was an adolescent and I needed her help.”

In their shared bedroom, while Ms. Vásquez applied makeup, Karen packed her mother’s blue backpack, slipping in pink Crocs, a fanny pack, headphones and a change of clothes.

Ms. Vásquez had gone out to march one day, too, blowing a plastic horn in the crowd and calling on the authorities to guarantee what she called a “dignified education.”

But she hadn’t returned to the streets. If something happened to her at the marches, who would support her children?

“Do you want me to braid your hair?” Karen asked her mother.

At the door, she kissed Ms. Vásquez goodbye.

Then, after months of hardship, came a victory.

Ms. Vásquez received messages from Maicol’s and Emanuel’s teachers: Both schools would bring students back, in person, in just a few weeks. And she finally found a spot for Ximena, who had been out of school entirely for more than a year.

“A new start,” Ms. Vásquez said, giddy with excitement.

Karen’s future was less certain. She had worked up the courage to return the broken tablet. Administrators did not fine her — and she applied to a new school.

Now, she was waiting to hear if there was space for her, trying to push away the worry that her education was over.

“I’ve been told that education is everything, and without education there is nothing,” she said. “And, well, it’s true — I’ve seen it with my own eyes.”

Reporting was contributed by Sofía Villamil in Bogotá and Soacha, Colombia; José María León Cabrera in Quito, Ecuador; Miriam Castillo in Mexico City; Mitra Taj in Lima, Peru; and Ana Ionova in Rio de Janeiro.

View Source

>>> Don’t Miss Today’s BEST Amazon Deals! <<<<

Italy’s Problem With School Dropouts Goes From Bad to Worse in Pandemic

NAPLES — Francesca Nardi never liked school, or thought she was particularly good at it, but with the help of teachers and classmates she had managed to stick around until 11th grade. When the pandemic hit, though, she found herself lost in online classes, unable to understand her teacher through the tablet the school gave her. She was failing, likely to get left back, and planning to drop out.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon she paused from chatting with two friends, who had already dropped out, near her house in the projects of Naples’ eastern outskirts.

“It’s better if I just work,” Ms. Nardi, 15, said. “And not waste another year.”

Even before the pandemic, Italy had among the worst dropout rates in the European Union, and the southern city of Naples was particularly troubled by high numbers. When the coronavirus hit, Italy shuttered its schools more than just about all the other European Union member states, with especially long closures in the Naples region, pushing students out in even higher numbers.

While it is too early for reliable statistics, principals, advocates and social workers say they have seen a sharp increase in the number of students falling out of the system. The impact on an entire generation may be one of the pandemic’s lasting tolls.

three times longer than France, and more than Spain or Germany.

And experts say that by doing so, the country, which has Europe’s oldest population and was already lagging behind in critical educational indicators, has risked leaving behind its youth, its greatest and rarest resource for a strong post-pandemic recovery.

“We are preparing badly for the future,” said Chiara Saraceno, an Italian sociologist who works on education.

Italy’s prime minister, Mario Draghi, allowed all Italian high school students to go back to school in person for at least half of their classes starting on Monday. Finishing the academic year in class, Mr. Draghi has said, should be a priority.

“The whole government thinks that school is a fundamental backbone of our society,” said Italy’s health minister, Roberto Speranza. “The first place where we will invest.”

But a good deal of damage has already been done.

Throughout much of the last year, the government argued that keeping high schools closed was necessary to prevent infection on the public transportation that students took to and from class.

Elementary schools were allowed to open more often, but the country’s insistence on closures, especially of middle and high schools, experts say, risked exacerbating inequalities and the country’s profound north-south divide. National and regional officials drew sharp criticism, and even the education minister who was in office then argued that schools should have opened more.

Mr. Speranza acknowledged that schools had paid “a very high price in these months.”

Schools around the southern city of Naples have remained closed longer than the rest of the country, in part because the president of the Campania region, Vincenzo De Luca, insisted they were a potential source of infection. At one point, he mocked the notion that children in his region were “crying to go to school.”

In Naples, the dropout rate is about 20 percent, twice the European average, and in the city’s outskirts it is even higher. Teachers there have struggled to keep students interested in school, and worry that months of closed classrooms would shut students out for good.

As schools closed Francesco Saturno, 13, spent his mornings helping in his grandfather’s fruit shop, sleeping in or glued to his PlayStation. He only twice logged on to his online class.

His mother, Angela Esposito, 33, who herself dropped out of high school, worried that he might leave school and follow in the footsteps of his father, who earns tips of loose change for babysitting parked cars in Naples.

“I am scared that if he doesn’t go to school he is going to get lost,” she said. “And getting lost in Naples is dangerous.”

In Italy, it is illegal for students below the age of 16 to drop out of school, and the local prosecutor for the minors’ court, aware that social workers are swamped, asked school principals to report dropout cases directly to her.

“I am really worried,” said the prosecutor, Maria De Luzenberger. In the last month, about a thousand drop out cases from Naples and the nearby city of Caserta have piled up on her desk, she said. That was more than in all of 2019. “I didn’t expect such a flood.”

Colomba Punzo, the principal of Francesco’s school, said dropouts had tripled in her primary and middle school during the school closures. She scrambled to find an alternative, and organized in-person workshops every morning to get Francesco and other at-risk children back into the system.

Ms. Punzo said policymakers underestimated how closing schools in neighborhoods like Ponticelli meant cutting “the only possible lifeline,” for the children. “When the school is open you can grab them and make them come, when the school is closed what do you do?”

In Naples’ Scampia district, known across Italy as a tough place plagued for years by the Camorra mafia, teachers at the Melissa Bassi High School had made significant progress in getting local children into school through art projects, workshops and personal tutoring.

The school’s principal said half of its students stopped following classes when they moved online. He said they gave cellphone SIM cards to those who could not afford Wi-Fi and offered evening lessons to teenagers forced to work as the pandemic hit their families’ finances.

But the challenge was enormous. Some of the neighborhood’s most neglected housing projects lack cellphone coverage, and children are often crammed with multiple family members into a few rooms. Teachers hoped most of the students would return if and when schools reopened, but they feared those who fell behind won’t see the point of going back.

“They are so discouraged,” said Marta Compagnone, a teacher there. “They think the bets are off.”

Hanging out with his friends on the steps of a square below the “Sails,” a huge triangular housing project a few blocks from Melissa Bassi High School, Giordano Francesco, 16, said he often fell asleep, grew bored and frustrated with the online classes he followed on his phone. He got into arguments with teachers because he often logged off to help his grandfather, who has Alzheimer’s disease, eat or use the bathroom.

His mother, who left school at 10 and lost her job as a theater cleaner during the pandemic, asked him to finish the school year. He said he would, and then drop out afterward.

His girlfriend, Marika Iorio, 15, standing next to him, said she intended to graduate, become a psychologist and live a different life from her father, who cannot read or write. But she was struggling to follow school online and failing her classes, too.

“I am scared I might not make it,” she said.

View Source