Biden should one-up Russia, China — offer free English, math classes to Latin American kids | Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer
·4 min read

As China and Russia step up their vaccine diplomacy in Latin America, it’s time for the Biden administration to do something bold: In addition to offering excess U.S. vaccines, it should offer free online classes in math, English and other subjects for tens of millions of children in the region.

It’s an inexpensive endeavor — could have a huge impact. It would help revamp America’s image in the hemisphere, and would help redress the calamitous loss of an entire school-year in most Latin American countries.

Latin America has been the world’s region most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. With 8.5 percent of the world’s population, it has 28 percent of the planet’s COVID-19 deaths.

And, on the education front, 114 million Latin American schoolchildren have been unable to attend classes since the beginning of last year, according to a March 24 report by UNICEF, the United Nations educational agency. That’s the longest period without in-person schooling than in any other region of the world, the agency says.

“It’s the worse educational crisis in the region’s modern history,” said Jean Gough, UNICEF’s director for Latin America and the Caribbean. “In no other place in the world are there so many children without (in-person) education.”

The World Bank estimates that at least 15 percent of children in Latin America will drop out of school because of the pandemic. And that’s on top of a previously existing education crisis. Learning poverty, as experts refer to the percentage of 10-year-olds who cannot read or understand a simple text, was already at 51 percent in the region before the pandemic. “The pandemic has just made this worse,” the World Bank says.

The Biden administration has a golden opportunity to counter China, Russia and Cuba’s vaccine diplomacy in the region by launching an ambitious hemispheric health and education plan in preparation for the IXth Summit of the Americas.

The hemisphere-wide meeting, held every three years or four years, is scheduled to be in the United States this year, although organizing officials tell me it’s likely to be postponed until February 2022. The Biden administration has yet to decide which U.S. city will host it.

Biden will be hard-pressed to match China and Russia’s vaccine activism in the region.

China has already delivered, or has contracts to deliver, 100 million of its Sinovac vaccines to Brazil, 12 million to Chile, 10 million to Mexico. Russia has shipped, or has contracts to ship, 30 million doses of its Sputnik V vaccines to Argentina, 24 million to Mexico and 16 million to Guatemala, according to the Atlantic Council’s Latin America vaccine tracker.

By comparison, the Trump administration didn’t promise any vaccines to any country in the hemisphere. The Biden administration has announced that it will send 2.5 million COVID-19 vaccines to Mexico, another 1.5 million to Canada and more later to other countries later.

That’s a good start, but Biden should aim much higher. He should sign agreements with existing free online education platforms such as KhanAcademy.org and Schoolhouse.world to expand online personalized tutoring to millions of schoolchildren. He should also sign deals with Coursera.org, Edx.org, Udacity.org and other “massive open online courses” — MOOCS — to offer English, computing and business courses to Latin American college students and adults.

The Khan Academy, a nonprofit organization that operates on donations, already is offering free math, English and other classes to 120 million children around the world, including about 20 million in Latin America. And Schoolhouse.world, a new nonprofit linked to it, offers free personalized tutoring to small groups of children needing remedial lessons.

Salman Khan, the founder of both platforms, told me in a telephone interview that the Biden administration could use its megaphone to promote these platforms. And it could also bring major U.S. and Latin American corporations to the table and ask them to help pay for online teachers and personalized tutors.

“A lot of folks in Latin America don’t even know that these tools are available to them, and for free,” Khan told me.

It would be a great way of re-inserting the United States in the region as a constructive partner. The upcoming Summit of the Americas provides a good framework for this ambitious plan. The time to start it is now.

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