Mercedes Mateo, Lead Education Specialist, Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)

Mercedes heads a broad initiative at the IDB Group to rethink education and strengthen the learning ecosystems to equip citizens with 21st-century skills. She also coordinates the research, design, and execution of innovative education projects. Her work covers different areas of international development and social policy, with a strong emphasis on inequality. She has contributions in the areas of institutional reform, female labour force participation, early childhood, socio-emotional and digital skills, and social cohesion. She holds a Ph.D. in political science from the University of Louvain. In 2004, she was a postdoctoral research fellow of the Belgian Scientific Research Foundation (FNRS) and honorary researcher until 2007. From 2002-2004, she was a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the Robert Schumann Center of the European University Institute.

There are around 300 million throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Most of them are part of Generation Z or post-millennials, but from now on, they will also be known as Generation COVID. They are girls, boys, and youngsters who found themselves trapped by the pandemic, either starting, in the middle of, or finishing their studies. More than a third of these boys and girls live in poverty, and their households´ circumstances have been aggravated by COVID, in a region where the wealthiest 1% account for 21% of the income of the entire economy.

In a context of low social mobility, investment in human capital through school is the main alternative for low-income children and youth to climb up the social ladder. Traditionally, they have been offered segmented social services: middle and high-income children do not study in the same centres as low-income children, do not have the same teachers, and do not see the same doctors when they are sick. With such unequal starting points, COVID has come to worsen an already existing inequality trap. How can the region take advantage of this generation’s untapped talent and avoid yet another lost decade?

The Legacy for Generation COVID
Since March, many countries closed schools due to the coronavirus pandemic, leaving millions of children and youth without any access to remote learning. What are the academic implications for Generation COVID? Many students lost schooling for half a year -and unfortunately, the clock is still ticking for many of them. It also means that many students will not return to school because they lost motivation to continue studying or have been forced to work for economic reasons to help their families in distress. An Ecuadorian teacher working in an urban area serving rural and migrant populations shared on Twitter some of the messages sent to him by his students and their families (see below):


September 12
Fifteen days of classes have passed. I work as a state teacher in a school located in an urban area, but rural and migrant. I will make a thread with sentences that I have heard from my students
and their parents these days.

I’m sorry for calling you so late (11:10 pm). It is when my dad comes home from work, and I can use his cell phone to do my homework.
Teacher, we only have one cell phone for my brothers and me. Let me submit my homework later.

(Student with a single telephone and three more siblings studying in two different educational institutions).

Householder: Please, teacher, wait for our homework until the weekend. We are going to buy a computer and get an internet connection so they can study.
(How many things will they have to sacrifice to do that?)

Teacher, I’m not going to study anymore. (High school junior student who is going to migrate illegally to the US)
Teacher, I’m sorry if I haven’t submitted my assignment yet. I don’t have internet nor even a data connection, so I can´t get the homework sent. I’ll try to connect at the weekend. If you can, tell my other teachers.
Teacher, can you wait for my homework? They just bought me a computer, and I don’t know how to use it.
Teacher, I am writing to you to help me. I am just going to send you my homework. I won´t be able to connect to virtual classes because I am working.
Teacher, I bought a phone, and I’m working to pay for the instalments. Please, help me by waiting for my homework.
Teacher, I have to see my son, and I can only do my homework at night because my mom works.
Please be patient with me.
(Teenage mother)


In a context where only about 60% of low-income students attend secondary education, IDB estimates indicate that about one million students in the region will drop out of school due to the pandemic. In academic terms, this implies that we are facing significant learning losses that will translate into increased socio-economic inequalities, given that high-income students have continued their learning journey while education stopped for low-income students. We could be facing a two- years difference in learning between poor and rich kids. The learning loss accumulated during this period could also be associated with a potential individual income loss of around 6%, and some studies estimate about a $10 trillion loss of lifetime earnings for the future generation.

How do we change the fate of Generation COVID?
Today, Latin America and the Caribbean must face the historical challenge of reversing this legacy. We cannot postpone it any longer. The solution requires offering real educational and economic opportunities to this generation that will otherwise live worse than their parents.

Start to Seriously Invest in Human Capital
We must rethink how to generate training and learning opportunities that break the existing segmentation. Today’s educational systems are not equalizers, and they should be. New proposals are coming from outside the formal systems, and despite operating from the for-profit private sector, they are contributing to providing real opportunities for young people who enrol in their programs. Why? Because they offer a combination of relevant knowledge and practical skills that are aligned with the labour market needs. They also provide financing opportunities that democratize access (i.e., students do not pay for their education until they find their first job). From a State perspective, it will be increasingly challenging to explain why certain private companies could be better at generating opportunities for the most vulnerable than services directly funded with public resources.

Offer Students The Skills And Competencies They Need For The Jobs of The Future
Real education opportunities come hand in hand with economic opportunities. The real test for how well a student did is not only the final score she gets on a test, but how useful is what she learned to get a quality job, start a successful business, or have a prosperous life. Our estimates indicate an increase of more than 12% in unemployment in the region due to COVID. We still have a large skills mismatch between what training systems produce and what the labour market demands: many young students are trained in traditional sectors, and not enough are prepared to work in those new sectors that the economy is generating. Furthermore, we still have too many jobs requiring low-skilled workers and adding little value to the final product. It is not easy to innovate and compete in a digitized world if you do not have the human capital to sustain it. We know innovation is a critical driver of growth and prosperity because behind it, we are capturing things like productivity, R&D spending, technology company density, manufacturing value-added, and patent activity.

Seriously And Responsibly Incorporate Technology Into The Education And Learning Processes, Starting With Connectivity
Miguel Brechner, one of the architects of Plan CEIBAL in Uruguay, was one of the first persons in the region to speak of connectivity as a right. Since then, and in the context of the pandemic, a kind of consensus has arisen around this idea. Today it is more evident that the “disconnected household” has not been able to study, work, do paperwork or even get information about what was happening. But access to educational and economic opportunities through technology goes beyond connectivity. It involves giving young people the tools to handle personal and social opportunities enabled by technology. Yet, educational systems still lack a determined inclusion of the skills necessary to manage today’s world (see the #skills21 illustration). These skills are now more important to students than ever before because digital transformation is much more about people and talent than technology. Students urgently need those skills to navigate a digital world and make sure they can continue learning throughout life.

Strengthen The Ecosystem Through Partnerships With The Private Sector
Formal education systems need to look and learn from what is happening in the entire ecosystem and generate alliances with the private sector and civil society organizations to transform education. This is a historical responsibility with the COVID Generation. The pandemic has starkly exposed the drama of inequality. Latin America and the Caribbean already had a lost decade: it cannot take on now a lost generation. Speaking to this idea, in October 2019, a regional Coalition for the development of 21st-century skills in Latin America and the Caribbean was created in
Panama. It is a call for action. Our responsibility today is to prepare children and young people to succeed in an uncertain future.

The Coalition is an alliance with 34 public and private high-calibre actors such as Google, Amazon Web Services, Ashoka, HundrED, CLOO, D2L, FORGE, Fundación Scholas Ocurrentes, ISTE, GRAMMY, Holberton, Minerva, KERIS, SKTelecom, Think Equal, TUMO, Fundación Barcelona, Laboratoria, Trilema Foundation, Santillana Foundation, Wikimedia Foundation, French Development Agency, REDUCA, Plan Ceibal, among many others. The Coalition is led by the IDB with a firm commitment that, each partner within the scope of its activities will contribute to create training and employment opportunities and provide people with the necessary skills for economic inclusion.

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