Buenos Aires, Argentina — Aldana Ramos recalls a moment early in the coronavirus pandemic when she thought she would have to give up her schooling. The 19-year-old resident of the low-income barrio of Villa Soldati was juggling two education programmes — taking university courses for medical school in the morning and then studying to be a nurse in the afternoon.
But it was the demand of classrooms thrust entirely into the virtual space that made things more difficult. With no internet at home, and only one cell phone that she shared with her younger brother to log on and complete assignments, it seemed almost impossible to keep up.
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She tried to use the Wi-Fi in her local park, but “the problem is that everyone connects at the same time, and it ends up crashing,” Ramos told Al Jazeera. “So it’s the same as nothing.”
Education has become a highly politicised issue in Argentina during the pandemic, with battle lines drawn over whether classrooms should remain open during another wave of COVID-19 infections or continue virtually, as they did for almost all of 2020.
The dispute has gone all the way to the Supreme Court, which sided with the city of Buenos Aires when it refused to abide by a national government edict to shutter schools as infections rose.
Now, as Argentina registers a record number of COVID-19 cases — 35,000 for the third straight day — a new lockdown announced on Thursday is once again sending all students home, making the question of how to ensure everyone can learn more urgent than ever.
In a region as deeply unequal as Latin America, closing schools has ripple effects: children from low-income neighbourhoods miss out on the daily meals schools provide as well as other support.
Plenty of middle-class parents were fed up with virtual learning after an entire year, too. But for those living in more privileged neighbourhoods, the pandemic made some parts of school easier. That was the case for Ayrton de los Santos, a 25-year-old economics student who lives in the middle-class neighbourhood of Almagro.
Overnight, de los Santos’s long commute to school vanished. From his computer in the comfort of his home, he could log in and attend lectures at his convenience. Class notes that once cost money to print out were now available online. But he knew not everyone was as lucky.
There is an education gap that always existed, and has become visible in the pandemic.
“It’s pretty unfair and selfish to argue for virtual classes to remain because things are better for me, and not see the number of people who are relegated to the margins,” de los Santos told Al Jazeera. “Those people have a lot fewer options to choose what they are going to do with their lives, what they’re going to do with their futures.”
The COVID-19 crisis has exposed just how far the inequality gap reaches in education, pushing those who were already on the margins further out when learning requires technological tools they simply don’t have.
“Today, education is a privilege,” Ramos said. “For it to not be a privilege, we need tools, which would be Wi-Fi and a computer.”
Lack of internet connectivity is one of the major factors that drove one in four primary school students who live in the poor settlements of Argentina known as “barrios populares” to abandon their schooling at some point in 2020, according to the Observatory of Argentines for Education (Observatorio de Argentinos por la Educacion), a think-tank based in Buenos Aires.
Of the 78 families surveyed, about 10 percent said they did not intend to send their child back to school in 2021.
Some four million people in Argentina live in the barrios populares. About half of the households surveyed by Observatorio de Argentinos por la Educacion this year reported difficulties connecting to the internet, while 11 percent said they couldn’t connect at all.
Another study (PDF) from the Catholic University of Argentina and the Defensoria del Pueblo, the city’s ombudsman, specifically on the city of Buenos Aires, illuminated that which is in plain sight: those who live in the low-income sectors, or who are employed in the precarious and poorly paid informal economy, are far more likely to lack access to the technology that is now needed to learn.
More than 45 percent of households in Buenos Aires’s barrios populares did not have internet access at home, according to the Catholic University study, compared to just 3 percent of households without access in the wealthier parts of the city.
Almost half of households in the barrios populares also don’t have computers. That’s why an overwhelming majority of students there — 80 percent — rely on their mobile phones to study, the Observatorio study found.
“There is an education gap that always existed, and has become visible in the pandemic,” Daniela Gasparini, a psychologist with the social activist organisation Libres del Sur, told Al Jazeera.
“Neither the national ministry of education, nor the city ministry of education, have been capable of adapting the education system to this pandemic,” she added. “We really need to be thinking about how we prepare for what is coming.”
On May 4, centre-left President Alberto Fernandez announced the government would be handing out 633,000 laptops this year to high school students across the country, prioritising those who had seen their connection to the classroom drop dramatically, or disappear entirely.
Fernandez touted the investment as a “moral obligation” and one that will have the added benefit of creating local employment, as the netbook computers will be manufactured at eight Argentine factories.
Providing students with free netbooks was a signature initiative of former left-wing President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — a scheme that was scaled back by her conservative successor, President Mauricio Macri.
Fernandez has also promised to extend fibre optic lines to “every corner of the country” to ensure better connectivity.
“Internet access today for a child is the equivalent of what access to a book was in my era,” he said during the May 4 netbook announcement in the Buenos Aires suburb of Ezeiza.
But more action is needed. Libres del Sur organised a sit-in and “public class” at the famous Buenos Aires Obelisk on May 6 to call on the government to do more.
The group is demanding free Wi-Fi in the barrios populares, as well as computers for students. It also wants to see increased education grants and proper sanitisation practices at schools that are open for in-person learning to keep students safe.
Both de los Santos and Ramos attended the Obelisk protest. The bitter irony of the ripple effects of pandemic learning has not been lost on de los Santos, whose university student association has been calling for more digital learning options for years — only to find too many students can’t access them.
Gasparini said Fernandez’s announcement is a “necessary measure, but it’s not enough”.
“We have to get to all the low-income homes, and also the homes where the entire family has to use the same mobile device,” she said.
That was the case for Ramos, who spent the early part of the pandemic scrounging up the pesos necessary to afford the data needed to watch lectures and access course materials on her phone. She often ran out of data before the two-hour classes were up, she said.
Her father picked up extra jobs as a construction worker so the family could afford to install internet at home, and to buy her 14-year-old brother a mobile phone on which to study so the siblings wouldn’t have to share. It was a tough expenditure given the mounting bills after Ramos’s mom lost her job as a cleaning lady.
“It was a disaster,” she remembers.
But then she took a moment to focus on what her long-term goals have always been — to one day become a doctor — and she found a way to keep studying.
“For our society to be able to advance as a society, we need to be educated,” she said.