SOACHA, Colombia — Already, two of Gloria Vásquez’s children had dropped out of school during the pandemic, including her 8-year-old, Ximena, who had fallen so far behind that she struggled with the most basic arithmetic.
“One plus one?” Ms. Vásquez quizzed her daughter one afternoon.
“Four?” the little girl guessed helplessly.
Now, Ms. Vásquez, a 33-year-old single mother and motel housekeeper who had never made it past the fifth grade, told herself she couldn’t let a third child leave school.
“Where’s Maicol?” she asked her children, calling home one night during another long shift scrubbing floors. “Is he studying?”
have returned to the classroom, 100 million children in Latin America are still in full or partial distance learning — or, as in Maicol’s case, some distant approximation of it.
The consequences are alarming, officials and education experts say: With economies in the region pummeled by the pandemic and connections to the classroom so badly frayed, children in primary and secondary school are dropping out in large numbers, sometimes to work wherever they can.
1.8 million children and young people abandoned their educations this school year because of the pandemic or economic hardship, according to the national statistics agency.
Ecuador lost an estimated 90,000 primary and secondary school students. Peru says it lost 170,000. And officials worry that the real losses are far higher because countless children, like Maicol, are technically still enrolled but struggling to hang on. More than five million children in Brazil have had no access to education during the pandemic, a level not seen in more than 20 years, Unicef says.
Increased access to education was one of the great accomplishments of the last half century in Latin America, with enrollment soaring for girls, poor students and members of ethnic and racial minorities, lifting many toward the middle class. Now, an onslaught of dropouts threatens to peel back years of hard-won progress, sharpening inequality and possibly shaping the region for decades to come.