Dispatch

Mexico’s School Closures Are Increasing Inequality

With schools shut for over a year, limited access to technology is exacerbating the education gap, leaving Indigenous communities behind.

Rodrigo Tuz Díaz, 11, a student at the Ignacio Ramírez Calzada primary school, works on his schoolwork at his home in the Indigenous community of Celtún, Yucatán state, Mexico, on May 3, as schools remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rodrigo Tuz Díaz, 11, a student at the Ignacio Ramírez Calzada primary school, works on his schoolwork at his home in the Indigenous community of Celtún, Yucatán state, Mexico, on May 3, as schools remain closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

CELTÚN, Mexico—As Mary Carmen Che Chi parked her car next to the small school building on a Monday morning in May, the few children around chatted impatiently before lining up for the routine hand wash between their two classrooms. They had been waiting for two long weeks to see her and her colleague José Manuel Cen Kauil.

The two teachers’ work was abruptly halted in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Mexico. “All of a sudden they told us, ‘Tomorrow just go and tell the children that you’re not coming back until further notice,’” Che Chi recalled.

Schools closed all over the country, and the federal government rolled out a program called “Learn at Home,” offering classes on television and online. But for teachers like Che Chi and Cen Kauil, this wasn’t an option. The Indigenous community where they both work, Celtún, is located in the middle of the Mexican state of Yucatán and it lacks access to the required tools for virtual learning. “It’s functional for urban areas, but for remote communities without signal it’s hard,” Cen Kauil said.

CELTÚN, Mexico—As Mary Carmen Che Chi parked her car next to the small school building on a Monday morning in May, the few children around chatted impatiently before lining up for the routine hand wash between their two classrooms. They had been waiting for two long weeks to see her and her colleague José Manuel Cen Kauil.

The two teachers’ work was abruptly halted in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Mexico. “All of a sudden they told us, ‘Tomorrow just go and tell the children that you’re not coming back until further notice,’” Che Chi recalled.

Schools closed all over the country, and the federal government rolled out a program called “Learn at Home,” offering classes on television and online. But for teachers like Che Chi and Cen Kauil, this wasn’t an option. The Indigenous community where they both work, Celtún, is located in the middle of the Mexican state of Yucatán and it lacks access to the required tools for virtual learning. “It’s functional for urban areas, but for remote communities without signal it’s hard,” Cen Kauil said.

According to the United Nations, almost 500 million children around the world have been excluded from the remote learning solutions that replaced their normal schooling due to the pandemic. For those lacking the resources and necessary technologies, it has become impossible to keep up with classes. In Mexico, the number of children between 6 and 14 years old who are not receiving any formal education has increased by 74 percent compared to 2015, according to government figures. The hardest-hit communities are those without access to the internet and other technologies, which is the case for around half of Mexico’s rural population, due to both poverty and lack of internet infrastructure.

Celtún has no cellphone service and national television broadcasts are unavailable. The teachers’ first issue was figuring out how to communicate with their students at all.

Headmaster José Manuel Cen Kauil teaches a small class of students ranging from ages 9 to 11 at the Ignacio Ramírez Calzada primary school in Celtún on May 3

Headmaster José Manuel Cen Kauil teaches a small class of students ranging from ages 9 to 11 at the Ignacio Ramírez Calzada primary school in Celtún on May 3

Mary Carmen Che Chi teaches a small class of 6- to 8-year-olds at the Ignacio Ramírez Calzada primary school in Celtún on May 3.

Mary Carmen Che Chi teaches a small class of 6- to 8-year-olds at the Ignacio Ramírez Calzada primary school in Celtún on May 3.

“We worried a lot about what to do, and the parents asked us the same, saying the kids needed something to do. But we weren’t authorized to go there,” said Cen Kauil, who lives in Valladolid, about 20 miles from Celtún.

In the beginning, no one without an ID indicating that they lived nearby was allowed to enter Celtún and community members could leave only for emergencies. The teachers decided to use the only means of communication available at the time and sent instructions about books to read via the community police’s radio receiver, asking the leader of the parents’ association to spread the word.

“We had no idea whether they did the exercises or if they were at all productive,” Cen Kauil said, adding that the radio only works when there’s electricity. “When it’s windy or rainy there might be a blackout for two or three days, but it was all we had.”

By summer, community officials finally allowed them into the area once a month to drop off and pick up photocopies of worksheets, but without ever seeing their students. In September 2020, they were permitted to begin meeting with their students for one hour every two weeks to explain the exercises, although the schools officially remained closed. During these short encounters, they review what the students have worked on and hand out new assignments.

Since the pandemic started, this single hour every two weeks is the only interaction the students have with their teachers. 

Instead of their normal multigrade full-day class with around 15 to 20 students each, they now split up into small groups of about five to reduce the risk of infections. Since the pandemic started, this single hour every two weeks is the only interaction the students have with their teachers. “It’s affecting them emotionally. The first day we came back the children wanted to come close and hug you, and we had to say that they couldn’t,” Che Chi said.

Fifth-grader Rodrigo Tuz Díaz lives just a few hundred yards away from the concrete building where he just received new homework. He used to be in school five days a week from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. and received a meal while there.

“I miss them a lot and want them to come and hold classes like before,” he said of his teachers, picking up a small chicken from the ground. He tries to complete the activities in his notebook, but it’s not the same. “I like how my teacher explains the exercises, because he helps me to finish them all.”

Sometimes his older sister helps him, or his dad does when he comes back from working in the fields, where the family grows maize, beans, and other crops. His father, Orlando Tuz Tuz, has felt a double hardship of the pandemic, with work opportunities disappearing and his children cut off from school. “It’s complicated, because the kids fall behind when there’s no classes,” he said.

Prolonged school closures also increase the risks of long-term consequences, such as a rise in dropout rates, as some children tend not to come back when schools finally reopen. This risk gets even higher during an economic crisis, when the pressure on children to contribute to the family income grows.


Che Chi visits with the parents at the home of her student Leisy Liliana Pool Cen in Celtún on May 4. She meets with parents every two weeks to distribute learning materials for the children, as well as to support and coach them through remote learning without access to the internet while schools remain closed.

Che Chi visits with the parents at the home of her student Leisy Liliana Pool Cen in Celtún on May 4. She meets with parents every two weeks to distribute learning materials for the children, as well as to support and coach them through remote learning without access to the internet while schools remain closed.

As parents have been forced to take on more responsibility for their children’s learning, yet another inequality is playing out. Many have only spent a few years in school themselves and some can hardly read or write, making it hard to help their children. “Sometimes I can learn at the same time, but if I don’t understand it I can’t help him, which feels terrible,” Tuz Tuz said.

More than 15 percent of Mexicans haven’t finished elementary school, according to the latest available numbers. Many parents in Celtún speak nothing but Maya and about half of the children don’t become bilingual until starting school, according to Che Chi.

Although over 7.3 million Mexicans—some 6 percent of the population—speak a language other than Spanish as their mother tongue, the federal “Learn at Home” program was rolled out mainly in Spanish and, Cen Kauil said, not with Indigenous students in mind. To overcome the barriers, they put the federal learning materials aside, creating their own substitutes.

Enrique Cetina, a school supervisor in the area, feels it’s been hard to get federal authorities to understand the challenges of rural education—both in terms of students’ learning needs and the financial burdens placed on teachers. “Personally, I feel frustrated and disappointed,” he said. “Almost all the expenses for printing land on the teachers, because the parents don’t have the money.”

In 2018, 8 out of 10 inhabitants of Yucatán were considered to be living in poverty or a vulnerable situation. In general, around 70 percent of Mexico’s Indigenous population live in poverty, compared to 39 percent of the non-Indigenous population. Likewise, 28 percent of the Indigenous population live in extreme poverty, while the proportion of non-Indigenous Mexicans in extreme poverty is just 5 percent.

The inequalities are as present when it comes to education. In Mexico’s Indigenous communities the illiteracy rate is 23 percent, compared to 4 percent in the rest of the population. The pandemic seems to be further exacerbating these differences.

A few blocks away, Rodrigo’s classmate Grisel Hau Poot played with a friend while her mother made tortillas over a small fire. Her mom, Argelia Poot Poot, is busy from early morning preparing food for her husband, washing, cleaning, and taking care of the kids. “We need to take an hour to help them, but when there’s something we don’t understand, how are we supposed to help them then?” she asked while kneading the dough.

In Mexico’s Indigenous communities the illiteracy rate is 23 percent, compared to 4 percent in the rest of the population. The pandemic seems to be further exacerbating these differences.

Since realizing parents also need help, the teachers have sometimes held small workshops or visited them to explain the exercises. “It gives them a moment to vent,” Che Chi said. “I love when a mother tells me, ‘Teacher, I tried this, but I’m not sure if it’s right.’ It feels good when they try, because that’s when we start seeing results.”

Further west in Yucatán, Yahaira Ek Sosa and her sister Karla Ek Sosa work with children who need extra support. Some have developmental or physical disorders, while others have fallen behind or dropped out because of family issues or traditional values encouraging girls to stay home rather than going to school.

Most people here live off their land and work as day laborers when they can. As the pandemic eliminated many of those jobs and resources tightened, the sisters had to come up with new strategies.

“I found out that parents who used to have a cellphone sold it to have something to eat. My students in Kancab don’t have any means of communication and in Peto they don’t have money to print the worksheets,” Karla Ek Sosa said.

Students have also told her they sometimes couldn’t finish their homework because they’re left alone without anyone to help when parents are working, or because a family member died.

Yahaira Ek Sosa and Karla Ek Sosa, sisters and elementary school teachers, sit in the “<em>escuelita móvil</em>” motorcycle taxi as they travel to visit their students during the coronavirus pandemic in Akil, Yucatán state, Mexico, on May 5.

Yahaira Ek Sosa and Karla Ek Sosa, sisters and elementary school teachers, sit in the “escuelita móvil” motorcycle taxi as they travel to visit their students during the coronavirus pandemic in Akil, Yucatán state, Mexico, on May 5.

After last summer, the sisters decided to create a mobile school. Starting their day in the village of Akil, they hire a motorcycle taxi and transform it with decorations and colorful collages to then visit the six villages where their students live. “The idea of using a motorcycle taxi has worked to get the attention of the children, despite all of the social and economic problems they are facing,” Yahaira Ek Sosa explained.

When the teachers arrived at the house of 12-year-old Abigail Xool Sánchez, she greeted them with a big smile, dressed up in a patterned black-and-white dress and pink bows in her hair. Karla Ek Sosa gave her a matching pink face mask and set out scissors and glue, along with photocopies of exercises. “We’re going to cut out the letters you see here, in the same order,” she explained.

Xool Sánchez’s eyes followed her teacher’s finger pointing at different letters as her grandmother María de los Ángeles Quetz Chan, whom she calls “mom,” watched—trying to remember the tasks she would be helping her grandchild with until the next visit.

“I want to work as a cook like my mom,” Xool Sánchez said, grabbing the scissors and starting to cut out the letters. She has a developmental disability and the visits are important for her, Quetz Chan said “It’s not like going to school, because then they come home having learned things already,” she said. “Now if you don’t push them to learn, they don’t.”


Although some teachers have been dropping off exercises for studying at home by meeting their students once every two weeks instead of giving instructions via a screen, schools in Mexico have officially been closed continuously since the pandemic started. Since this June, attempts to reopen schools have been made in various states as COVID-19 cases had decreased. But after an optimistic outlook in Yucatán in May, the spread of the virus increased here again and reopening has been delayed. When the day comes, the children who haven’t had access to the distance education offerings are likely to be the ones who’ve fallen furthest behind.

As Rodrigo Tuz Díaz’s mother prepared lunch, he and his father waited in the backyard. “I think the government should let the schools open so the children can study better,” Orlando Tuz Tuz said, watching his son sit down with his notebook. “Because many children stop going at all when the teachers just come every two weeks.”

Asa Welander is an independent journalist based in Mexico City, Mexico. Twitter: @aosita

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