In early 2020, we documented children all over the world as they returned to school or began kindergarten for the first time. Just months later, the COVID-19 pandemic saw schools close in almost every country in the world. To mark International Literacy Day on Sept. 8, we caught up with the same children to see how school has changed for children in poverty around the world.
At 5 years old, Nataly has spent more time trying to learn at home than she has in a classroom. In February, she proudly strapped on her bright pink school bag — it dwarfed her small body — and headed off to her first day of kindergarten.
Just weeks later, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Bolivia and she was suddenly confined to her home. Gone was her classroom, her friends Luz Marilyn and Marisol, and her new teacher.
The playground was replaced by her family’s small home, roughly the size of the average Western kitchen. Her school desk is now their table, and Nataly’s teacher her mother Amalia, who attended school only until first grade.
“I never met my father, so I had to help my mother,” says Amalia. “I only worked. I couldn’t play. Now, I only know how to sign my name.”
Nataly’s brothers have stepped in to teach her. “It’s challenging to help her or explain to her because I can’t read and write very well,” says Amalia.
This difficult situation is playing out all over the world. Almost every country has shut schools in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and many are still to reopen. According to UNICEF, as of June, over 1.7 billion learners were affected. Children in poverty have been the most affected.
For the world’s most vulnerable, school closures affect not just their education, but food security, child protection, and access to technology. As national education systems introduce distance and online learning, families in poverty can find themselves excluded.
Earlier this year, we documented children all over the world as they returned to school or began kindergarten for the first time. As we look back upon their dreams and reflect on how life has changed, constants remain: the children’s hope, and the support of Compassion’s local partners.
Eleazar, El Salvador
At the start of this year, fifth-grader Eleazar planned to study hard so he could finish at the top of his class. “We expect him to finish the year in first place or at least second,” said his father, David, in February. “I have faith in my son. I know he is intelligent, so I want to have enough life to see him graduate from school. He can get more opportunities and help society.”
Eleazar, 11, has been studying at home since schools in El Salvador closed in March. It’s been a frustrating experience for the family, who don’t have access to the internet or a television set. “The government screens televised lessons for one hour every day, and the school sends work over the internet, but they don’t help us to have access,” says David.
Kind neighbors have stepped in: One donated a broken television with no picture but working sound so Eleazar can listen to the lessons; another shares her smartphone so he can access his homework guide online. Despite the challenges, the father couldn’t be prouder of how his son has adapted. “I don’t have to help him because he is brilliant. He only gets first places,” he says.
“Because I dropped out of school when I was in eighth grade, I cannot do a lot for him. But if he asks me a question and I know, I answer.”
Libradge barely slept the night before her first day of school in January. At 5, she was a little old to be attending nursery school, but poverty meant that her mother, Divine, couldn’t afford to send her earlier. When Libradge was registered into Compassion’s Child Sponsorship Program in October 2019, the little girl was immediately enrolled.
“I gave birth to Libradge when I was a teenager and I had to drop out of school. I have been raising her with the help of my elder sister and life has been so tough,” said Divine. “The support we have received ever since she was registered into the project has been overwhelming. I’m excited that my daughter is now in school.”
Today, Libradge’s schooling is being interrupted a second time due to the pandemic. While the government screens lessons on television and radio for primary and secondary students, there isn’t a program for nursery students. “It has been challenging to teach or do revisions with Libradge because I don’t have enough material to use while teaching her from home,” says her mother.
“The center has been helping us by checking in on us to see how we are doing as a family and giving us food during the lockdown. We were told we will receive school supplies this August, as there are plans to open schools in September, hopefully.”
Libradge is eager to return to class. So, too, is her mother. “Although I don’t pay my daughter’s school fees, I help her do homework, and this builds her confidence in me,” says Divine. “I’m hopeful that I will also return to school one day.”
Start and Anushka, Bangladesh
“I feel proud and happy to see my children wearing their school uniform and walking off to school every morning,” says Nargis, mother of Start and Anushka in Bangladesh. It has now been months since she’s seen the once-familiar scene.
Her son and daughter are unable to watch the government’s broadcast lessons as they don’t have a television. “My children used to watch TV at the neighbors’ but the pandemic has restrained them from going out.” Thankfully, the school social worker is confident in helping her children to learn at home.
However, with the pandemic affecting both her and her husband’s employment, much of their time must now be dedicated to finding work. “Before the COVID-19 situation, mother used to teach us,” says Start, 12. “But now she is out of home trying to search for a job. Not being able to always go out to play and staying indoors like a caged bird has been the most frustrating thing during the restrictions.”
Dominga, El Salvador
Fourth-grader Dominga was looking forward to working on her reading this year. Her biggest worry was mathematics and having to tackle homework for the first time. She knows from experience that she can count on her center’s support.
“Last year, I received a report from school about Dominga struggling in math,” says her mother, Esmeralda. “I was sad because even though I wanted to help her, I cannot do it without the knowledge. I can only count from one to 200. But the sisters at the project hired a teacher for twice-weekly tutoring classes so she could finish the school year well.”
Esmeralda was forced to drop out of school in the first grade after only seven months because of the long, dangerous walk to get there. “When I receive a letter or information, I need to go to my neighbor and ask him to read it for me,” she says. “I want Dominga to have a different dream than mine. I support her dream of being a doctor.”
Dominga’s father has been helping her as she studies at home today. “It’s challenging because I cannot understand the material,” says her mother. “But almost always, she does everything alone. We don’t have any technology, even electricity. For us, it’s challenging to have access to the new way of learning.”
Despite the difficulties, the 11-year-old has achieved her original goal: She is teaching her little sister to read.
Walking to school for their first day of classes in January was bittersweet for brothers Whochong and Tullo. Just a year earlier, their father had been by their side. He was killed in a road accident in 2019 and they feel his loss keenly. This year, their widowed mother Jhapi had to sell furniture in order to afford her younger son’s tuition fees, while Compassion’s program helps provide for sponsored child Whochong, 12.
“Despite our challenges, I’m glad that both my sons are going to school and getting an education like all the other children. I can’t ask for more,” she said earlier in the year.
“I feel proud of my children every time I see them leave for school together. It may not be in my control to afford their schooling, but all thanks to Compassion for helping me educate my children and be able to join in their first day.”
Five months later, life looks very different. The boys’ school is running online classes, but the family doesn’t have a smartphone or computer to access the lessons. “Taking online classes is not an option for us,” says Jhapi. Her sons complete their work using pens, notebooks, and pencils provided by Compassion’s partner.
“We have difficulty in helping our children with their schoolwork because as parents, we ourselves are not educated enough to give them academic education,” says Jhapi. “But now our focus is more on making it through another day with jobs to pay our bills.”
Although school has changed for children, who face many challenges because of COVID-19, Compassion’s partners remain by their side. They help the vulnerable like Libradge, Nataly, Start, Anushka, Eleazar, Dominga and Whochong to access education from home. And when schools reopen, they will ensure that children in poverty are not left behind.