Education Gaps and Reimagining Learning in Panama

After nearly two years with schools closed to in-person learning in Panama, some students are now able to return to their classrooms. Still it is evident the gaps that already hinder access to quality education have been made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. According to a recent United Nations Children’s Fund household survey report, distance learning does not guarantee adequate learning for all children in the country. How can we better understand these gaps and their consequences? What can we do to help close them? Can we come together and begin to reimagine learning as part of the recovery process?

We recently had the opportunity to listen to a presentation of the UNICEF household survey report on education during the pandemic. The presenting panel included representatives from the Ministry of Education, United Nations, UNICEF, UNESCO, Panama’s Center for Educational Research, Jovenes Unidos por la Educación. and PRO-ED (An educational organization created by Dr. Debbie Psychoyos, also a Friend of Forum Foundation, that supports the advancement of education by providing educators with opportunities for ongoing professional development,) 

We will review concerning facts and figures, share reflections from the panelist, and discuss some of the ways we can help build learning resilience to bridge these gaps. Perhaps even reimagine learning as we look towards the future.

UNICEF’s survey reveals that the number of students who stay connected for distance learning during the 2021 school year is higher than the previous year, an affirmation of the laudable efforts made by government authorities and several non-profit organizations helping students around the country. 

This included prioritizing the national curriculum and setting clear objectives like creating online platforms for distance learning, providing instruction via radio, television, and internet, donating devices in rural communities, and even translating education modules to native languages. Nonetheless, the already present educational crisis that included challenges like crumbling infrastructure, lack of internet connectivity and learning resources, as well as rampant school desertion, has been aggravated by the pandemic, as several panelists mentioned in their interventions.

Our work at Forum Foundation was also transformed by these challenges. We quickly adapted the support we were offering to provide students and families with the resources to continue their education. For example, the bulk of our financial aid scholarships shifted to supporting data connectivity for our beneficiaries’ cell phones. Helping them remain connected. 

Forum Foundation’s amazing administrative staff and volunteers continue to organize several virtual workshops to assist students with tutoring in Mathematics, Chemistry, Physics, and English to name a few. The Forum Foundation Community Center in El Caimito, also provides in-person support by appointment, providing access to internet and computers, physical learning resources like books, as well as printing modules and assignments. The team also continues to make extraordinary efforts to travel to schools in the area to offer tutoring assistance to students in person. 

Francisco Trejos of UNICEF, points out that despite the encouraging results of the reduction in school dropout during the pandemic,  there are still territories -especially in the comarca and hard to reach communities- where issues with connectivity are deeply troubling. The data show an alarming situation, according to socio-economic context, the deepening gaps revealed: “for households with greater resources, 87% of students have access to virtual platforms that allow greater interaction with their teachers, but in households with lower incomes they connect through WhatsApp and half of them only have one cell phone for the whole family.”

Trejos explains that the survey reflects the concerns of students who say that they are not learning enough at home, given that the pace of learning is significantly slower. “Virtual learning generates a lot of fatigue, boredom and overload” says Trejos. A student can spend between 6 and 8 hours in school, but the data show that in public schools 48% don’t attend for that many hours, while in private schools this figure drops to 13%. It’s clear, students are missing out on normal school days. The World Bank estimates that students will have missed out on an average of 2 years. Trejos further explains that the survey also sought to measure the quality of education, asking households if they felt teachers were addressing students’ doubts. Unfortunately, only 43% of households stated that their doubts were being solved.  The level of dissatisfaction with the current situation only worsens when looking at the data from the comarcas and rural communities. 

  • 69% of children in households in the lowest socioeconomic level use a cell phone to receive distance learning.  

  • 53% of households indicate that the quality of their children’s learning is not adequate. 

  • Only 3 out of 10 students in public schools interact several times a day with their teachers, compared to 7 out of 10 in private schools. 

  • More than half of the households (55%) want to return to face-to-face hybrid education. 

The impact of the pandemic varies significantly between children in public and private schools. A clear difference in accessibility is evident. Students, their families, and teachers are all having a difficult time and the level of dissatisfaction is unsettling. While it appears more students are connected, there is a heavy reliance on cell phones. In fact,  51% of students in the lowest socioeconomic level must share the device with another family member. The consequence of this gap means that  87% of students at private schools dedicate 3 or more hours to learning, while in public schools it is only 52% that achieve this number of hours. Deepening that gap even further, 25% of public school students do not receive classes every day, versus 93% of private school students who do.  

Adding to the concerning data, Jorge Iglesias, President of the Education in Progress Foundation cites a report from the Organization of Ibero-American States that suggests it could take 11 years to recover the learning lost during the school shut down”. In Iglesias’ view, perhaps the most startling gap in need of addressing is the 300,000 students missing from the system, as reported by Panama’s Tribunal Electoral. (Electoral Tribunal). 

For Nanette Svenson, Director of Panama’s Centro de Investigación Educativa (Center for Educational Research) these gaps will make economic recovery more difficult. She worries that bridging the gaps could take years. In an article published by La Prensa Svenson states “The pandemic has emphasized what we already knew: the quality of our public education system, that serves 87% of students in the country, is not adequate to build a prosperous and equitable future.” 

Svenson explains that we are already seeing the impact of the pandemic on education. Teachers are overburdened, students are not learning at the pace they are used to or are left out of the system altogether. Families are struggling to support their children’s education. Anxiety is rampant in all parts of the learning community.

Debbie Psychoyos, PRO-ED, says there is an unseen or often overlooked gap. The need for social-emotional support as part of the learning process. This is hard on everyone involved, and it is important to remember that this type of support is something schools have had difficulty addressing.  Going online and distance learning significantly increased not only the need for this support, delivering it has been even more challenging. Her point is further supported by a Global Report ‘What’s Next? Lessons on Education Recovery’, launched by UNICEF, UNESCO, The World Bank, and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. 

Calling attention to the fact that it may be easier for school systems to recover from academic setbacks than repair the harm caused to the emotional well-being of students. Stating that,  “to minimize the impact of school closures on student’s well-being, middle- and high-income countries are providing psychosocial and mental health supports for learners. However, as one might suspect, this type of support is much less frequently reported in low-income countries. It is not only the loss of learning but childrens’ psychological and emotional well-being that is the untold and unquantifiable casualty of the pandemic.” 

Distance learning platforms have come head to head with a harsh reality.  A large part of the population does not have a fixed internet connection or a computer or tablet. “In fact, there are still many who do not even have electricity in their communities. CIEDU data shows that only about 40% of students in the public system have internet access at home and only 30% have access to a computer. These figures drop considerably (or disappear altogether) within the indigenous communities of the comarcas as well as rural and marginalized communities. Besides, families are now further burdened with the additional costs of purchasing data for their cellphones to ensure their children stay connected lest they risk missing out on additional hours of instructional time or assignments. 

Svenson claims that the large differences between the kind of remote education students receive threatens the current and future learning capacity of these students. Furthermore, Svenson states that if Panamanian education is further politicized, as is often the case, everyone will lose out: children, families, the economy, and the country as a whole. 

Cristina Mundante- Resident Director of the United Nations in Panama, acknowledges that if we hope to make things better, we must work together, just like we have done with the vaccines. There is a big risk here. It is not hard to imagine that this would in turn seriously affect students’ chances to graduate and move on to pursuing university or college degrees. 

In an article published in the Panama America newspaper, Profesor Gregorio Urriola Candanedo calls for a disruptive and auto-constructive approach to bridge the gaps. “There is an impending Academic Disaster” on the horizon, says Uriola. Simply put, students graduating from high school during the Pandemic are not ready for university studies. “They lack the competencies and skills that are needed for the rapidly evolving job market.” What’s worse, economists Erik Brynjolofsson and Andrew McAfee state that the digital revolution could in fact yield greater inequality by disrupting labor markets. Uriola maintains that we are at risk of falling even further behind and missing out on the 4th industrial revolution, the digital revolution. Robotics, big data, the internet of things, nanotechnologies, digital literacy and investment in innovation for education are urgently pressing issues. 

Our work supporting the learning community in the rural mountains of Cocle confirms this troubling data.  For example, students who had previously traveled hours to get to school for in-person classes climbed trees and hiked up steep hills to connect to their classes if only for a moment. Nonetheless, the learners we are supporting have persisted.  Jorge Casanga’s of “Jóvenes Unidos por la Educación,” main concern is to help reduce the number of students who might drop out of school when faced with these challenges. This has also troubled us at Forum Foundation. Throughout these past months, our administrative staff and volunteers have worked diligently and tirelessly to advise students, speak with family members all in the hopes of ensuring students continue their schooling. 

Casanga also spoke about students rising to the occasion and helping each other by forming informal and formal support networks. This kept students motivated and feeling supported in spite of the challenges presented.

Romina Kasman Education Specialist UNESCO, emphasises the importance of citizen participation in improving education, “we build citizenship by advocating for better education. The progressive phenomena of school desertion can only be addressed by working together, says Kasman. For example “If students do not learn to read at an early age, the effect can be long lasting.  Psychoyos and PRO-ED also believe in working together to broaden the learning community, creating spaces for teachers to share worries, strategies, experiences, resources, and social emotional support.

In Trejos opinion, repairing these gaps will take years, and it won’t be enough to go back to the way things were before COVID-19. The crisis has further uncovered the extent to which the majority of students in the public education system have been marginalized. 

Based on these findings, UNICEF is calling to:  

Accelerate the safe reopening of schools in all areas of the country so that students can have face-to-face interaction before the end of the current school year. 

To decisively improve access to adequate connectivity throughout the education system so that this is not a barrier to access to quality education (Internet, equipment, etc.). (Internet, equipment, etc.) 

Strengthen the capacities of teachers to be able to provide adequate education to students who are not accessing it and reinforce psycho-pedagogical support to effectively support students. 

Support all families, but especially those in more vulnerable situations, to eliminate any barriers to access to education derived from the pandemic (uniforms, transportation, internet costs, technology equipment, etc.). 

Implement effective policies and programs to prevent educational exclusion and provide a second chance for those at risk of dropping out of school (remedial education, early warning system, accelerated programs, ad hoc curricular adaptations, etc.). 

In the face of all this uncertainty, deepening gaps, and anxiety there is a wonderful opportunity to reimagine learning. To rethink what, why, and how we learn in virtue of recovery and development, says Kasman. We share her belief that there is more to school than completing homework and covering content. Learning is about human connections and development. It is about the potential to create a better world.  

The pace of change is accelerating and we risk missing out again. We are more connected than ever. But are we preparing students for the future? Panama is perhaps one of the most appropriate places for a reimagining of learning to take place. After all, this is the place where the land was divided and the world united. We are the bridge of the world and the heart of the universe. What better place to educate global citizens?

We must take advantage of Panama’s unique position as a humanitarian hub in the region, and work together with organizations like UNICEF to design and develop psycho-social and mental health guidelines that will build capacities and promote awareness. 

At the start of his tenure, President Nito Cortizo, welcomed students to the 2020 school year with a rousing speech. His words still resonate and should be a call to action for all of those who are involved in learning. He mentioned he wanted to see students working together, collaborating, no longer sitting in rows taking dictation. Instead, he dreamed of seeing students solving problems. 

In his book “What School’s Could Be” Ted Dintersmith offers a different way of thinking about learning. Seeing it as a deeply transformational experience for all who are involved. As he explains it is possible to make learning deeply transformational when it is PEAK learning. 

Purpose: students attack challenges they know to be important that make their world better.

Essentials: students acquire the skill sets and mindsets needed in an increasingly innovative/changing world. 

Agency: Students own their learning, becoming self-directed, intrinsically motivated adults.

Knowledge: What students learn is deep and retained enabling them to create, make, and to teach each other.

What if? Instead of memorizing multiplication tables, students began thinking like mathematicians? What if learning the history of our country was achieved by putting on a theater production or filming a documentary? What if we fostered students’ curiosity for science and the environment by creating spaces for experimentation and investigation? Imagine what learning could be, if students took ownership, asked their own questions. Imagine what learning would be like if instead of tests and homework, students showed us what they learned in presentations, creating art, seminars, and teaching others. 

To further advocate for and promote a reimagining of learning, we need collective will and unified action. Knowing that only by working together can we hope to recover from the effects of the pandemic, lessen the economic impact of an affected educational system, build on the resilience of our social-emotionally affected learning communities, and bring us into a brighter future, fulfilling the promise expressed in our beautiful anthem ‘with fiery gleams of glory the new nation is illuminated.’ 

We want to hear from you! What do you think are the most urgent challenges to address in learning during these difficult and uncertain times? What would you like to see change? How can you contribute to fostering a reimagining of learning? Or maybe you have an idea of what we should talk about on our next podcast.  Direct message us on our Instagram account @fundacionforum or write our podcast producer

Forum Foundation beneficiaries, we see you, we know how hard you have been working to overcome every challenge life throws at you. We are immensely proud of each and every one of you. We believe in you. Never stop believing in yourselves. You are the future. Keep moving forward.


Ted Dintersmith: Reimagining Education