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Coronavirus Further Threatens Brazil’s Struggling Public Education System

When I used to teach at a local public school in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a 16-year-old female student once told me that she had two dreams in her life. The first one was to have a healthcare plan. The second was to successfully finish high school before she had to start working for her family. 

She hadn’t been at school during the entire week before we met, terrified to step foot outside her house. Police operations had been ongoing in the favela in which she lived, following a week-long gun battle between rival drug gangs in the area. She still risked failing the school year due to repeated absences.

Initially, our Friday afternoon creative writing classes were meant to help students practice writing mechanics and improve their command of the Portuguese language. The power of words, though, allowed us to transform the classroom into a space of trust and vulnerability, where students shared their frustrations about the world with me and the other volunteers. As we talked and wrote, and talked and wrote some more, nationwide education inequality statistics became jarringly evident to me. 

It was present in their spoken Portuguese, conspicuous in the students’ incorrect use of plurals and in the stories they shared. Projections of future careers as NASA scientists, politicians who would work to bridge the education gap, or environmentalists who would save the Amazon rainforest overflowed from the pages of the books some students wrote. 

Others––authors of narratives less romantic––wrote about the claustrophobic limitations of empty libraries, school staff strikes against the government, and the tragic sonority of shootings that made studying at home impossible on some nights.

My students’ first-person accounts showed me that too many of the 39 million Brazilian students who rely on the public education system attend school under precarious––and sometimes even dangerous––conditions that profoundly hinder their learning. 

In an article published by the Financial Times, Denis Mizne, Chief Executive Officer at the Lemann Foundation and former visiting scholar at Columbia and Yale, writes that “when we think of poor children, we tend to think not of test scores, but of hunger and homelessness. Yet a second-rate education has become one of the most significant and overlooked effects of living in poverty in Brazil, as the education a child in our country receives is influenced by his or her socioeconomic status.”

Studies conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics reveal that 5.2 million Brazilians between 0 and 14 years old––the equivalent of Denmark’s population––live below the poverty line, coming from families that earn less than R$420 a month (US$5.50 a day). 18.2 million live on the poverty line. 

Meanwhile, 90.5 percent of elementary school students in the country attend public schools. Though 97 percent of Brazilians between the ages of 6 and 14 are in school, the education gap remains profound.

Because of the inextricable relationship between family income and enrollment in the public education system, wealthy students attending private schools learn the equivalent of up to four years more than low-income students by the last year of high school. Brazil shows the one of the greatest learning inequalities between students considered rich and poor, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). 

The root of the injustice in public education stems from the federal government’s inefficient spending––systemic of Brazilian governance for decades but made even worse under the Jair Bolsonaro administration. 

Brazil’s 5.4 percent GDP investment in education is dwarfed when we compare dollars invested per student to that of other countries in the OECD, according to the NGO Todos Pela Educação. Brazil invests under US$4,000 per elementary school student, while the median OECD annual investment is over US$8,700. For students in middle and high schools, the difference in investment is over US$6,000.

For a greater understanding of the socioeconomic barriers in Brazilian education, The Politic interviewed Renan Ferreirinha, the 24-year-old Harvard graduate and activist for education who was elected the youngest state deputy in the state of Rio de Janeiro in 2018. Born and raised in São Gonçalo in the periphery of Rio de Janeiro, Ferrerinha had his life transformed by education. Before his election, he co-founded two movements aimed at placing education at the forefront of Brazil’s public policy agenda through youth activism. 

“We live in a country with many unequal opportunities in different sectors,” Ferreirinha told The Politic. “One of the ways in which this manifests itself most is in education. Education, that which should be the greatest promoter of equality and opportunity, ends up being a promoter of inequality since students have very different access to educational opportunities.”

They now face even crueler challenges in the face of COVID-19. As Brazil records one million coronavirus cases and surpasses 50,000 deaths, states around the country have begun reopening their economies. Resuming in-person teaching in schools, however, remains impossible. 

Schools nationwide have adopted online learning methods that rely on the use of apps and digital platforms, even though research conducted in 2019 shows that nearly 40 percent of public school students in Brazil do not have access to a computer, laptop, or tablet. 

Patrícia Zuqui, a teacher at three public schools in Rio de Janeiro, shared some of the difficulties she and her students have experienced with distance learning with The Politic

“We have tried to maintain contact with our students through social media such as WhatsApp and Facebook or Google Classroom, though it is impossible to reach all of them right now,” Zuqui said, “Some students can only access academic materials from devices that belong to parents or guardians, which means that some can only study at very late hours at night… Many live in conditions that do not allow for involvement with academics or classes.” 

According to Zuqui, it is not only about whether students can access the material the school provides, but also about how well they understand the content once communication with teachers is interrupted. Realizing the disparities in access to technology, some municipal schools have not even tried to offer distance learning––in the absence of any better alternative, they are merely encouraging teachers to stay in touch with students.

The school environment has also served as a refuge for many students who did not have the proper conditions to study at home. Zuqui explained that many families relied on the meals offered by the school, so the government promised to distribute lunch allowances. Its failure to do so for all students, however, forced teachers to take matters into their own hands.

 “Unfortunately, many students did not receive [the allowance]. In one of the schools I work at, we teachers got together to buy a basic-needs grocery package to help students who the system did not attend to,” Zuqui said.

The school also protected students from exposure to violence––sexual, physical, or psychological––in their communities. 

When asked about what impacts COVID-19 will have on public school students’ academic year, Zuqui stated that “it is almost impossible to talk of an academic year because we cannot affirm that students are in fact receiving distance learning.”

Ferreirinha explained that “one of the most severe consequences that we will have [due to the pause in education during the pandemic] will come in the results of Enem [National High School Exam] or other exams.”

Enem is required for entry into public universities in Brazil, so students from all socioeconomic backgrounds take the same exam. The disparity in learning opportunity is buffered by essential quota policies implemented by universities.

Zuqui believes that with public education basically at a halt, “it is a cruelty to talk of Enem this year.” Ferrerinha agrees.

While heroes in education like Zuqui and Ferreirinha work tirelessly on the ground to fight for the rights of students in their respective states, some of Brazil’s highest authorities neglect the crisis. 

Abraham Weintraub, who left his post as Education Minister on June 18, not only failed to present strategic plans to the Ministry during his 14 months in government, but also has not provided any guidance whatsoever to municipal and state educational institutions since the beginning of the pandemic. The only legacy Weintraub left behind to the millions of students relying on him was the intensification of ideological discourse and his threats to democratic institutions.

“Weintraub [was] the worst minister in the history of Brazilian education,” commented Ferreirinha. “It is cruel to see someone of such low technical level and completely lacking in human empathy [make decisions for millions of students].” 

Before leaving his post in the Ministry, Weintraub’s last ruthless act was to eliminate the quota requirements for black, indigenous, and disabled people in post-grad programs in Brazil’s federal universities.

When asked to compare Weintraub’s position to that of other Education Ministers in Latin America, Ferreirinha said that he could not. 

“I cannot imagine someone who would [have done] a poorer job than Weintraub did for Brazilian education…. Education is the most fundamental tool we have to decrease inequality in our country and in the world,” he affirmed. “We have never seen Brazil put education as a priority in government. We need that.”

Carlos Alberto Decotelli, former professor and president of the National Education Development Fund, will substitute Weintraub as Minister of Education. In an interview with Brazilian newspaper OGlobo, Decotelli said he has “no preparation for ideological discussions;” his role in the Education Ministry, he said, is strictly “technical.”

Brazilians may hope that this indicates the onset of a more serious management that will work to promote quality education for all, which is especially critical during this polarized moment in the country’s history. 

While the long-awaited arrival of a more qualified Education Minister may signal a better future, COVID-19 will still leave behind tragic impacts that are likely to determine the future of millions of academic and professional careers––or lack thereof.

In a conversation with The Washington Post, Alice Albright, Chief Executive of the Global Partnership for Education, explained that some of the world’s poorest students are not likely to return to school after the pandemic is over.

According to Albright, the most severely impacted group will be “adolescent girls from the poorest and most rural households because they are more exposed to violence and sexual harassment, and are more likely to be deprived of basic social, health, and educational services than boys.” 

During this time, I constantly think back to my 16-year-old student, quarantined in her violence-stricken community. She is confined not by physicality, but by the limitations of an education system that has repeatedly failed her.

I would love to see a student of mine become a scientist, a teacher, or a politician, as they dreamed about in their books. To bring them closer to that reality, our most immediate challenge will be correcting the fall out of the country’s failed pandemic response

The obstacles in the return to school are extensive. Schools will have to combat high dropout rates, improve sanitation (70 percent of early childhood schools have no sewage system and 40 percent have no access to clean water supply), and enforce social distancing measures, which will be even more difficult in overpopulated urban schools.

Bolsonaro, Weintraub, and their allies must be held accountable and be pressured to dedicate their governance to the most powerful transformation tool we have. Only then, can Brazil work to redefine public education and bridge the achievement gap in the country.