By Ana María Castro
Raiza is starting her morning the way she usually does. After waking up at 6 a.m. she heads to the family dining room where her mother, Silvia, has prepared breakfast: chucula, a sweet plantain smoothie that’s popular in the Ecuadorian Amazon.
After breakfast, Raiza, 11, helps her mother with the dishes before feeding the family pets and collecting cassava and other fruits and vegetables from their garden in Pandayacu, a Kichwa indigenous community in northeastern Ecuador. Silvia is pregnant and expected to give birth in the next few days, so she’s more tired than usual and needs a little extra help around the house.
But the imminent arrival of a new sibling isn’t the only change Raiza has been grappling with. For the past few months, she hasn’t been able to go to school.
“Don’t forget to wash your hands with soap and water when you’re done,” Silvia reminds Raiza as her daughter leaves the house. It’s a familiar phrase heard around the world these days, and a reminder that even in remote communities such as Pandayacu, COVID-19 is upending young people’s lives.
Bridging the education gap
Three months have passed since school closures across Latin America and the Caribbean left some 154 million children temporarily out of class. But while many children have been able to continue learning remotely, in more isolated areas like the Ecuadorian Amazon, online learning isn’t an option.
With no internet access, no cell phone and no television in her home, Raiza has been relying on weekly visits from her teacher, Doris.
“Raiza is one of my most judicious students. She greets me with such joy every time I come to her house with study materials,” Doris says. “Her mother is also very supportive and helps her with her homework.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has underscored the already significant difference in access to education between those living in urban areas and those living in rural parts of Ecuador. Almost two thirds of the country’s households lack internet connectivity, leaving many children – especially those outside of towns and cities – unable to take advantage of remote learning tools.
That’s where teachers like Doris come in. Utilizing materials that cover traditional subjects – such as mathematics, history, Spanish, family-based activities like cooking and crafts, and new guidance on preventing the spread of COVID-19 – teachers who would usually travel to a classroom are visiting students’ homes, checking on their progress and setting homework.
The education materials being shared build on a programme that was first developed as part of the response to the devastating earthquake in 2016, which left many children at risk of falling behind due to their school being closed. These materials have been adapted with the support of UNICEF and implementing partner Desarrollo y Autogestión to assist around 1,200 children, like Raiza, considered to be at similar risk of falling behind their peers due to the COVID-19 school closures.
“Many of [these children] are in vulnerable situations and are impacted by migration, domestic violence, child labour or sometimes cultural beliefs that don’t promote the education of children, particularly girls,” says coordinator of the Pedagogical Levelling and Acceleration project at Desarrollo y Autogestión, Nancy Torres.
By 2 p.m. Raiza has finished her homework for the day and asks her mother to join her as she’s planning to meet her cousins at the nearby river. The river is Raiza’s favourite place to relax, swim and fish for tilapia.
“I know children can’t go to school right now, but they are still learning at home with help from their parents,” Silvia says. “And they’re still able to play in the river and enjoy our beautiful nature.”
The initiative to reach children at risk of falling behind, supported by principal donor Diners Club Ecuador and implementing partner Desarrollo y Autogestión, is part of UNICEF Ecuador’s overall COVID-19 education response, which also includes donations of digital devices and data plans for teachers to keep in touch with students, production of educational programmes for radio and television, and delivery of intercultural and bilingual education guides.