Impact of COVID-19 on secondary school teaching in Argentina

Impact of COVID-19 on secondary school teaching in Argentina

Analía Inés Meo

On the 20th March 2020, the government of Argentina announced compulsory social isolation across the country for just two weeks. Forty-two days after that decision, the confinement continues to affect the majority of the population in urban areas. To date, every school in the country remains closed: around 1,000,000 teachers are working or trying to work from their homes, and approximately 11,400,000 pupils in compulsory schooling should have been contacted by their schools to support them to continue their education. In most provinces, the lockdown started just after few days after the beginning of the new school year.

This collective compulsory confinement and the closing down of every school have created extraordinary circumstances that we are still trying to understand. As researchers of education we became curious about teachers’ experiences of these changes and wondered how we could examine teachers’ lives within this “research confinement”. We decided to create an online questionnaire to record teachers´ views and perspectives, including those with different institutional affiliations and living conditions. The Argentinean team circulated the survey from the 9th April to the 3th May to secondary school teachers in the City and the province of Buenos Aires.

I first examine some of the educational policies developed during the lockdown in the province of Buenos Aires (the largest jurisdiction in Argentina). Secondly, I explore key themes identified through the online survey in the province of Buenos Aires. This will help to start unpacking how teachers are enacting policy and experiencing their work during the pandemic.

Educational policies on the go
The province of Buenos Aires represents 38.7% of the Argentinean population (around 17.2 million people). The percentage of households with Unsatisfied Basic Needs (Necesidades Básicas Insatisfechas) is slightly lower than the national average: 8.2% and 9.2% respectively. In terms of the poverty line, 30.3% of its households and almost four out of 10 people are living below the poverty line (these figures are higher than the respective national averages of 25.4% and 35.4%). More than a half of children under 14 years old are living in poverty.

Regarding its educational system, in 2018, secondary schooling had 1,574,407 pupils across 3946 establishments with 66,464 teachers. Almost 67% of all pupils were being educated in state-run institutions. Social origin contributes to explain students´ educational trajectories (including drop out, over-age, and educational achievements). As an example, according to official statistics, 41,5% of last year students from low socio-economic status (SES) reach a satisfactory or advanced level in Language, this contrasts with 70% of those from high SES (with a national average of 54%).

At the beginning of the lockdown, the ministry of education of Buenos Aires published on-line booklets for students for every school year in compulsory education. Materials were designed to support the continuity of schooling and were uploaded to the official website “Continuamos educando” (we continue teaching) five days after the beginning of the confinement. At that time, the provincial government announced that schools would distribute 648,000 of these booklets to pupils without Internet access. In the first two weeks of lockdown, booklets included a couple of tasks in two priority areas (language and maths), and later more subjects were added (including Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, sex education, physical education, and citizenship). These materials aimed “to make this exceptional situation more organised and less stressful”.

The official website of the Province also includes a link to materials produced for students by the national Ministry of Education as part of the national program and virtual platform “Seguimos educando” (we continue educating). The booklets include daily tasks for every educational level, organised in two collections. They “want to connect teachers, students and families”, and warn that they “do not replace school, lessons nor teachers (…), but instead aim to support the continuation of education in line with what local provinces are doing.

This material also recommends students to be aware of what teachers ask them to do.  Unlike the official Provincial website, the national Ministry of Education´s site also has resources for teachers, school authorities and families. There are “pedagogic guidelines” for teachers on using the national virtual platform. This document emphasises that “institutional planning by schools and the organisation of each subject, area or field of knowledge should (…) allow learning to be integrated back into the normal curriculum once face-to-face learning returns”.

Educational authorities have emphasized the need to continue education, sustain interactions between schools, teachers, students and their families, and to define learning activities that allow the continuation of learning at the end of the confinement. These policy texts do not include mentions to virtualization or to distance learning as the preferred way to achieve this ambitious goal. They “create circumstances in which the range of options available in deciding what to do is narrowed or changed, or particular goals or outcomes are set (Ball, 1993:19). Rather than proposing clear courses of actions, policies create problems for schools and school actors.

Teachers do policy
How are teachers experiencing working from home during this time of confinement? Here I explore teachers’ narratives collected through two open-ended questions included in the questionnaire: i) How could your working conditions be improved during confinement? and ii) would you like to comment on or share any of your experiences during confinement? Here I focus on statements from teachers working in state run schools, who declared that many students have had pedagogic difficulties during confinement, and whose families are perceived as low or low-middle classes (142 cases).

Unlike the discourse of provincial and national policy, teachers interpret the virtualisation of teaching and learning as compulsory; as something that needs to be done (Ball 1993). References to resources are paramount. According to recent statistics, around 89% of households in the Province of Buenos Aires have an internet connection, this reduces to only 63% of families from low SES (CEPAL/CELADE, 2020).

Teachers are aware that “pedagogic encounters change radically when its things change” (Fenwick and Edwards 2010, 5). Their narratives suggest that the new scenario demands access to different things for teachers, families and students, such as home-space, internet connectivity, computers, data, a mobile phone, WhatsApp, e-mails, texts, booklets, computer memory, microphones and cameras. These things also demand know how to use them in new spaces and time frames, and for new purposes within specific pedagogic, organisational and administrative logics. Teachers emphasised the unequal access to things and to know-how with several asserting that learning was not possible for many students.

Teachers’ narratives also refer to the alterations to time triggered by virtualisation: several recognised that the pace of work and demands were “frantic” at the beginning of the lockdown. For some, things started to settle down after two or three weeks. For others, the intensification of work and the acceleration of time continues. “Unprepared”, “stressed”, “anxious”, “under pressure”, “worried for students”, “overwhelmed”, “not knowing what to do” and “overworked” were some of the expression used by teachers to define how they experience this “difficult time”. During confinement, teachers are working longer hours outside of clearly defined working days. Some also referred to the everyday juggling act between work and childcare.

Several respondents expressed concern about the obstacles that virtual interaction presented them in developing emotional ties with students (which for them were linked to learning and school engagement). Numerous teachers felt that emotionally supporting families and students should be teachers’ priority tin this “emergency”.  A few teachers described “being close”, offering “emotional support”, and “listening” to students as their top priority.

Several narratives portrayed schools as key mediating arenas of the ways in which virtualisation was carried out. While some refer to their institutions as “overseers”, “mere control”, and “inspectors”, others recognised them as pedagogically supportive (or at least, as providing collegial support). Furthermore, several critique the lack of articulation between school actors and subject areas.

Numerous implicit references to state agencies and educational policies could be traced through teachers’ narratives: not only through their critiques of nonsensical bureaucratic and administrative demands, but also in demands for guaranteed access to material resources and to knowledge. Requests for better salaries for teachers are also present in few testimonies. Few expressed that the booklets provided by the national and provincial authorities were useful (although half of them have used at least one online official resources).

This initial analysis shows how the dramatic alteration of the organisation of time and space of schooling, the lack of face-to-face interaction, and the absence of pedagogic tools have had an impact on how they are experiencing the confinement and their work. Future research is needed to understand how teachers, as policy actors in different arenas, are embodying and enacting policy at homes. This will allow us to unpack both the pitfalls and the opportunities of this extraordinary time.

Ball, S. J. (1993). What is policy? Texts, trajectories and toolboxes. Discourse 13(2), 10-17.
Fenwick, T. and Edwards, R. (2010). Actor-network theory in education. Routledge: London.


Analía Inés Meo is researcher from the CONSEJO NACIONAL DE INVESTIGACIONES CIENTÍFICAS Y TÉCNICAS (CONICET), Argentina. She is based at the Research Instituto Gino Germani (Universidad de Buenos Aires). @AnaliaInesMeo @IIGGuba The author thanks Alejandra Cardini for sharing statistics on Internet access and Juliet Rayment for her comments.

Image Credit: Analía I. Meo, Early morning at an empty bus stop of a primary school in Almagro, City of Buenos Aires (by mid-April 2020).