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UNESCO learning cities' responses to COVID-19 – outcomes of webinar on 9 April - Latin America and the Caribbean

Bogota learning city

CC BY- SA 3.0, Felipe Restrepo Acosta
22 April 2020

On 9 April 2020, the UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning (UIL) organized its fifth webinar on learning cities' responses to COVID-19. This time it was the turn of Latin American and Caribbean cities. Bogotá (Colombia), Mexico City (Mexico), Villa María (Argentina) and Lima (Peru) shared how they are addressing the COVID-19 crisis with other members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC), representatives of other cities, and education stakeholders.

Opening the seminar, Mr Raúl Valdés-Cotera (UIL) recalled that these are moments of uncertainty. COVID-19 is more than a health issue, as it has affected the educational (indefinite closures of schools, universities, day-care centres, etc.), social (isolation in various countries) and economic spheres (unemployment in non-essential activities, leading to increased inequality). This is the reason for this webinar, the objective of which is to exchange solutions and contingency plans. Latin America and the Caribbean can learn from the good practices of Asian and European countries, which will enable them to take relevant measures to contain and mitigate the pandemic, as time is of the essence in these tasks. In this sense, the webinar becomes particularly relevant in two key aspects: first, because it shares the experiences of cities, which are the government entities closest to the people, and second, because it helps to resume the important dialogue between health and education.

After this welcome, the moderator, Mr Sergio Cardenas (director of the Regional Cooperation Centre for Adult Education in Latin America and the Caribbean in Mexico from 2016 to 2019) introduced the participants. He observed that it is time for civil and international organizations, government, private initiatives and citizens to work together, and that, in the face of uncertain times, action must be based on evidence.

Ms Mary Guinn Delaney, UNESCO Regional Advisor, Health and Welfare Education for Latin America and the Caribbean, stressed that the region is just going through the first stage of the pandemic, so efforts must not be diminished. COVID-19 has managed to bring to light various phenomena on which work must be coordinated: the increase in domestic violence, mental health issues caused by quarantine, excessive use of the Internet, information on self-care, among others. The speaker stressed that initiatives such as this webinar serve to generate a space for shared knowledge. UNESCO is compiling all the information from official sources in the region to report on the progress of COVID-19.

Mr Fernando Alarid-Escudero, Research Professor at the Centre for Research and Teaching in Economics (CIDE) in Mexico raised the question of ‘How to make decisions in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic‘. To this end, he explained a simulation model used in some states of Brazil, Mexico and the United States of America. This mathematical model helps to visualize the risk of future events: costs, probability of acquiring the virus, quality of life, and mortality from the disease, among others. Decisions must be made based on information: doing nothing, social distancing, stopping work activities, stopping academic activities, etc. Each of these options has consequences depending on the region, the progress of the virus and other factors. The results of these models are very useful for designing action plans. The speaker stressed that the world is facing a complex phenomenon and, for this reason, complex models reflect the reality of this phenomenon and help to obtain more realistic results for government action.

Bogotá, Colombia

Ms Laura Querubín Borrero, Advisor to the District Directorate of International Relations of the General Secretariat, Mayor's Office of Bogotá, emphasized that care for people is at the centre of all government actions. These actions are based on different approaches: scientific, economic, epidemiological and humanistic, among others. In addition to constituting a table with different actors that generate information, Bogotá took the experiences of other cities around the world and anticipated the situation, decreeing a ‘life simulation’ on 20 March to inform citizens. The simulation was a learning mechanism to explain to people the importance of confinement, the situation concerning COVID-19, its consequences, and which people are vulnerable. At the same time, the government was able to ascertain the needs of the people of Bogotá.

The entire country is undergoing quarantine to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Faced with this situation, the country has implemented various measures in the area of education, including the ‘Aprendo en Casa’ programme, which provides education to almost 800,000 students in public schools. One of the many strengths of this programme is that it takes into account the fact that not all students have a computer and internet at home. Therefore, educational material is available on the internet, on paper and on the national television. This strategy, and others taken up by the mayor's office (for example, awareness campaigns, economic aid to the vulnerable population, and the expansion of hospital infrastructure) is coordinated with different ministries so that all Colombians, especially vulnerable groups, will emerge from this pandemic without devastating consequences.

Mexico City, Mexico

Mr Martinez, representative of the Secretariat of Education of Mexico City, described how the country is taking action based on data and experience. With the arrival of COVID-19 in Mexico, the federal government decided to inform the population about the consequences of the virus, what to do to take care of themselves, how to avoid its spread. For this purpose, it created ‘Susana Distancia’, a fictional heroine who was in charge of transmitting all this information to the population through radio, television and internet. In times of fear and uncertainty, information is the best tool to fight the pandemic. As COVID-19 progressed, the government decided to suspend school activities and urged the entities concerned to carry out academic activities at a distance; it is the responsibility of local educational authorities to implement measures so that learning is delayed as little as possible. For this, Mexico City has made use of television, internet and physical material. In the case of adult education, the various ministries of Mexico City have included links on their websites to distance learning courses, thanks to collaboration agreements with national and international distance education organizations.

In addition to continuing to implement existing social programmes (scholarships for students, assistance for single mothers, assistance for the unemployed, etc.), the Mexico City Government has implemented two measures: The first was the distribution of the ‘COVID-19 Medical Kit’ from house to house, which contained items that, due to the pandemic, are scarce in the market (such as masks or antibacterial gel), as well as a self-care instruction manual. The second was an information campaign about the health crisis: symptoms, how to take care of yourself at home and the opportunity to send a text message if you have symptoms, all in an effort to help avoid saturating hospitals. All these measures implemented at national and local levels have been thanks to the participation of various sectors and the experiences of good practices from other learning cities that have already passed this first stage.

Villa María, Argentina

Mr Martin Gil, Secretary of Public Works of Argentina and former Mayor of Villa María, began his speech by asking: ‘What is the role of the municipalities in this health crisis?’ He argued that neighbourly relations and trust are key factors in dealing with any type of action. Local governments are crucial; however, the powers of each area of government must be taken into account. In the area of formal education, remote and distance learning measures and tutoring systems were taken; for both teachers and students, it was a new situation of mutual learning, accelerated, but fruitful. In the case of adult education, Villa María, as a learning city, faced the challenge of completely changing its way of teaching, since it had always been face-to-face (due to the advanced age of technological tools or lack of knowledge on the part of the students).

The cell phone has been a very valuable instrument for distance education; adults have been resilient. Both the federal and local governments have implemented measures to attend to vulnerable people: older adults, women who are victims of domestic violence and immunocompromised people, among others. Technological tools such as radio, telephone, television and internet have been used to support citizens. Mr Gil recognized that COVID-19 is a learning experience. Societies will not be the same after this pandemic: this includes people, the labour market, health and education systems. That is why the UNESCO GNLC, as a group of solidarity among cities, must proceed with an openness to learning, change and reality transformations.

Lima, Peru

Ms Renata Teodori de la Puente, Advisor and Manager of Innovation Projects of the Education and Sports Management of the Metropolitan Municipality of Lima, began her intervention by recognizing the importance of being able to transform in difficult times. To this end, she showed a video on the decision of the government of Lima to transform a recreational square (Plaza de Acho) into a place where vulnerable people can sleep and eat during this pandemic. Ms Teodori emphasized the importance of intra-governmental and inter-institutional coordination for the management of the pandemic. President, ministers and mayors of cities can enter into dialogue and draw up lines of action to solve problems of health, education, gender violence, among other phenomena that COVID-19 has brought to the agenda.

Various measures have been taken in the educational sphere to remedy the suspension of face-to-face academic activities. The ‘Aprendo en casa’ programme offers educational content to all students in formal education, using digital media, television and radio. The content is developed in 10 native languages, as well as in sign language. In addition to formal education, these media offer complementary learning in sports, culture and recreation. The sub-management of education has various programmes to protect and strengthen learning in these times of uncertainty. In addition, the city of Lima believes that in times when the whole family is at home, it is important to promote intergenerational cooperation through information and didactic materials. Lima is committed to effective, assertive and emotional communication between all family members.

Concluding thoughts

Following the presentations by the city representatives, the participants raised a number of concerns and a brief discussion took place around two main themes: the role of educators and the focus on vulnerable populations. On the first topic, there was agreement that during this crisis we are seeing the importance of two sectors commonly marginalized by societies: health and education. The precarization of jobs and professionalization in these sectors is a topic to be discussed when the region has overcome this pandemic.

Furthermore, it was emphasized that, currently, parents are more involved in student education and, therefore, can become more sensitive to the role of teachers. Peru designed and implemented the ‘Docente Influencer’ programme where schools are given economic incentives and logistical support with the most innovative ideas to implement these initiatives. With respect to the second theme, all the speakers affirmed that the different actors focus their actions on the most vulnerable populations: older adults, homeless people, women victims of violence, people living in poverty, immuno-depressed people, among others. Ms Cherubin stressed the importance of not waiting for the pandemic to pass before helping them. In conclusion, the moderator, Mr Cardenas, identified collaboration as an important element in overcoming this pandemic: collaboration between governments, collaboration between sectors, collaboration between cities, and emphasized the relevance of the webinar as an activity that allows for the sharing of acquired knowledge.

GNLC webinars

The online event was part of the GNLC webinar series ‘UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19’. Devised as an opportunity for members of the UNESCO Global Network of Learning Cities (GNLC) to share successful local initiatives during the pandemic, the webinars regularly attract hundreds of city representatives and other stakeholders. Cities from different world regions give presentations, and participants engage in thought-provoking debates about how best to deal with the current situation – namely, how to mitigate its worst effects and, in some way, seize unexpected opportunities. Click the links below to read summaries of the four previous webinars.

UNESCO learning cities' responses to COVID-19: higher education institutions’ support for local communities – outcomes of webinar on 15 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Family learning and community support. The cases of Gdynia (Poland) and Cork (Ireland), as well as insights by experts from Germany and Pakistan. Outcomes of webinar on 8 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19: Equity and inclusion. The cases of Espoo (Finland), Chengdu (People’s Republic of China), Swansea (United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland). Outcomes of webinar on 1 April

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Osan (Republic of Korea), Wuhan (People’s Republic of China), Turin (Italy), São Paulo (Brazil). Outcomes of webinar on 24 March

UNESCO learning cities’ responses to COVID-19. The cases of Shanghai and Beijing (People’s Republic of China), Fermo (Italy), Kashan (Islamic Republic of Iran). Outcomes of webinar on 19 March

Don’t miss the opportunity to join our upcoming webinars. Further details can be found at https://uil.unesco.org/event/gnlc-webinars-unesco-learning-cities-response-covid-19.

Watch our video interviews with mayors and other representatives of UNESCO learning cities on responses to COVID-19 at https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLivu_GCiL2mjYQOp64hcvzGNsC75QKSLw

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