Education of Indigenous People During the Pandemic: The Experience of Ecuador

By Sebastián Granda Merchán Quito | Jul 21, 2020

It is essential that the State and civil society organisations consider the real situation of the indigenous population and schools, with a view to implementing strategies to resolve the difficulties that have been evident in these three to four months of the health emergency and ensure the continuation of the educational process of indigenous children and adolescents.

Martin sanchez j2c7yf223 Mk unsplash 900x600

Ecuador, like the rest of Latin American countries, was affected by COVID-19 in February of this year. In fact, the first case of infection was reported on February 29, and since then, the number of infections and deceased persons has grown exponentially. Today, June 29, 2020, the country has 55,255 confirmed contagion cases and a total of 4,429 people died due to the virus (National Risk and Emergency Management Service, 2020).

With the aim of preventing a possible massive contagion among the population, on March 12 the Ministry of Public Health, (via Agreement No. 00126 – 2020), declared a state of sanitary emergency throughout the national territory and ordered a series of measures to ensure the timely and effective care of the infected population, as well as to prevent the spread of infections. On March 13, the Government reported the first death due to the virus.

On March 15, three days after the health emergency was declared, the Ministry of Education (through Agreement No. MINEDUC-MINEDUC-2020 – 00020‑A), ordered the suspension of classroom classes in all educational institutions of the national territory. The measure included the institutions of the Bilingual Intercultural Education System (SEIB), in which the majority of children and adolescents from the country’s indigenous peoples and nationalities are trained.

The main purpose of this document is to carry out an initial mapping on the situation of the education of indigenous peoples in the context of the health emergency.1 For writing this article, information was retrieved from social networks and different web pages (SEIB Secretariat, indigenous organisations, among others), as well as information gathered through informal conversations with teachers and directors of indigenous schools in the north-central Sierra and the southern Amazon.2

Indigenous peoples of Ecuador

According to the last Population and Housing Census (INEC, 2010), the indigenous population constitutes 7% of the Ecuadorian population (a total of 1,018,176 inhabitants). Compared to the other ethnic groups in the country, indigenous people form the fourth largest ethnic group in number, after the mestizo population (71.99%), montubia (7.4%), and Afro-Ecuadorians (7.2%).3

Table: Indigenous population according to nationalities

Kichwa85,9 %
Shuar9,4 %
Chachi1,2 %
Achuar0,9 %
Andoa0,8 %
Awa0,6 %
Tsáchila0,3 %
Waorani0,3 %
Cofán0,2 %
Shiwiar0,1 %
Secoya0,1 %
Siona0,1 %
Zápara0,1 %
Epera0,1 %

Source: INEC (2010)

Most of the indigenous population lives in rural areas (78.5%), an aspect that makes an important difference with what happens in other countries in the region, for example, Peru, Chile and Venezuela (ECLAC, 2014). However, it is important to note that there is increasing migration from the countryside to the cities and, in particular, the processes of indigenous mobility to the country’s two largest cities: Quito and Guayaquil.

Similar to what happens in the rest of Latin American countries, the Ecuadorian indigenous population lives in a complex situation in social, economic and cultural terms – the outcomes of the long processes of cultural discrimination, political exclusion and economic exploitation implemented by the white-mestizo population and the Ecuadorian State. It is enough to review any social or economic indicator (health, education, housing, access to basic services, income, political participation, territory, habitat, vitality of the language, etc.) and it will point to the above.

Indigenous peoples and COVID-19

In Ecuador, there is no official data on the number of infections and deaths among indigenous people due to COVID-19 (Simbaña, 2020). The information that the Government disseminates daily considers data by province, canton and parish (levels of the country’s political division), and by age group and gender. It does not consider the area of​residence of the infected or deceased population (urban or rural), nor does it consider their ethnicity. The only official account of the Government that includes the ethnic variable is the report namely Current situation by COVID-19 in nationalities – indigenous peoples of the Amazon’, released by the Ministry of Health on June 22, which came more than three months after the declaration of the health emergency. However, this report gives a partial picture of the situation because it only disseminates information from the Amazon (Ministry of Public Health, 2020).

From the pronouncements and reports issued by the main indigenous organisations, a significant increase in the number of infections and deaths of the indigenous population in rural areas, but also of the population residing in intermediate and large cities, can be noted. Just a month and a half after the declaration of a health emergency, 240 indigenous people were reported dead in the city of Guayaquil, most of them migrants from the Chimborazo Province (Tuaza, 2020).

On June 26, the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of the Ecuadorian Amazon disseminated through its website the latest bulletin on the situation in the Amazon, in which alarming data are presented, considering the small number of inhabitants in several of the nationalities that inhabit the region and the absence or lack of public health services in the area. Until that day, 1,121 confirmed contagion cases and 33 deceased people were reported (CONFENIAE, 2020).

With the aim of avoiding contagion in the absence or lack of public health services in indigenous territories, the communities of the Sierra, Costa and Amazonia have implemented different strategies to prevent contagion and cope with the disease. They highlight the decision to shield their territories through strict control of the entry of foreign people, the adoption of their own action protocols, and the reinforcement of the use of plants and traditional forms of healing, among others –all these strategies have similarities with those promoted by indigenous peoples from other countries in the region (CLACSO, 2020).

Actions of the Ministry of Education

In Ecuador, the educational system is made up of two subsystems: the Intercultural Education System, in which the majority of the white-mestizo, Afro-descendant and Montubia population of the country study; and the Intercultural Bilingual Education System (SEIB), in which the majority of children and adolescents from indigenous peoples and nationalities study. The SEIB has its own curricular proposals (the National Intercultural Bilingual Curricula) that constitute adaptations of the national curriculum to the culture and life context of the different indigenous nationalities. Just before the declaration of the health emergency, most of the institutions were starting the application of these curricula, since these were disseminated in 2018. Due to the declaration of a health emergency and the suspension of face-to-face classes, the Ministry of Education launched a set of actions and measures in different areas (curricular, and teacher training, among others) (GIEUPS, 2020), aimed at sustaining and rationalising the educational process in a non-face-to-face mode.

On March 16, the Minister of Education presented the Educational Plan COVID-19, which consists of a pedagogical adaptation of the national curriculum for educational work at and from home, with the support of parents. Simultaneously, the SEIB Secretariat (the body that coordinates the work of the institutions of the indigenous education system), promoted several actions to support educational work in indigenous schools. Among these, the work carried out by the zone directors, together with the district circuits, to train teachers and coordinate the design of self-learning pedagogical guides for children of different nationalities, following the guidelines of the curricula of each nationality (SESEIB, 2020) stands out.

As a result of the previous work, the SESEIB was able to have official and printed learning guides, and to start, from June, the delivery to the parents and children of indigenous schools throughout the country, especially in those areas in which they do not have the possibility of communicating through the internet or other digital media (Ministry of Education, 2020).4

Day-to-day education in the territories 

In general terms, it is noted that the educational process in the IBS System, despite the setbacks of the sudden change in work modality and the situation of exclusion experienced by the largest indigenous population, has managed to be sustained during the emergency period. Work in indigenous schools has been sustained thanks to the implementation of a kind of distance mode, with little or almost no interaction between teachers and students; a mode of study that distances itself from the mode that the Ministry of Education opted for in the initial periods of the health emergency: online education.

There are several factors that explain the option of distance learning in indigenous schools, but the most determining factor has to do with the gaps that exist in the country in terms of access to basic equipment and services necessary for online education. Two data that account for the above are the following: 92% of indigenous households do not have a computer at home, and 97% of indigenously-headed households do not have internet access (INEC, 2010), both indispensable tools for the operation of online education.

This situation has had an impact not only on the day-to-day running of rural schools but also on the daily work of urban schools. This has been the case, for example, of several indigenous schools in the south of Quito where, despite the fact that teachers have the possibility to work via the Internet, they have not been able to do so because most of their students do not have a computer. They do not have internet service in their homes, nor do they have enough money to rent, regularly, the service in Internet cafes in their neighbourhoods.

At for the level of pedagogical strategies and resources used, different situations depending on the region are evident. In the provinces of the central and northern Sierra, for example, work began with the weekly learning activities of the Educational Plan COVID-19, but from the second or third week of the emergency, they began to work with self-activities – learning designed by teachers based on the guidelines of the Kichwa Nationality curriculum.

In the Achuar territory (south-east of the Amazon) most of the educational institutions also started work with the guides of the COVID-19 Educational Plan, but immediately began to work with the texts and workbooks delivered by the Ministry of Education at the beginning of the school year; texts and notebooks designed based on the generic national curriculum. The model of the Sierra schools was not chosen because, until the day of the declaration of the health emergency, the tools to implement the Achuar Nationality Curriculum had not been successfully circulated in the area.

The decision not to work with the COVID-19 Educational Plan guides, in both regions was due to the level of difficulty of the guides, and also because of the lack of adaptation of the guides to the context of life and culture of children and adolescents, especially those in rural contexts. Regarding the first point, several of the teachers with whom we had the opportunity to talk referred to the complexity of the activities of the Covid-19 Educational Plan not only for the students and parents (responsible for supporting them at home), but also for the teachers themselves.

Regarding the means of communication and interaction used, there are also different situations according to the sector. In certain sectors, WhatsApp is used extensively for sending and receiving learning activities, as well as for communication and student support. These are those sectors where they have a mobile phone signal and where families have smartphones that allow them to use the application.

In cases where the students or the teachers themselves do not have access to WhatsApp (a large part of the rural areas of the Amazon and the paramo communities of the Sierra), the work has been carried out through direct delivery of the learning guides in the homes of the students or through scheduled meetings in the educational centres – meetings that have also been used to give directions to parents and resolve concerns.5

Despite the efforts and initiatives implemented by the authorities, teachers, students and the parents themselves, the day-to-day education in indigenous territories has not been without problems. One of them, as mentioned above, has to do with the little or almost no capacity of teachers to communicate and interact with their students, a problem that hinders, at the root, the possibility of guiding, accompanying and ensuring learning.6

A second problem has to do with the difficulty of the students in adjusting to the implemented work modality, which presupposes a lot of initiative and autonomy on the part of the students, as well as access to resources of different kinds for the fulfilment of learning activities. It is, therefore, two attributes that are not always guaranteed in the indigenous world (not even among the white-mestizo population), due to the vertical and memory model that has prevailed in indigenous education and the material conditions of indigenous households.

The third and last problem refers to another central conditioning factor of distance learning that is not always met in the territories, namely, the involvement of parents in the educational process. The distance mode presupposes an active role on the part of the parents and a permanent accompaniment in the learning process of their children, a role that, in turn, demands from the parents, a set of knowledge and specific skills. On the last point, the public pronouncement of the Governor of the Tsáchila Nationality is symptomatic, appealing to the need for teachers to support parents more since the latter do not know how to explain to their children and help them with development of the learning guides (Aguavil, 2020).

Until today, we are not clear about the modality with which the next school year will be conducted in the Sierra and the Amazon, nor the dynamics the schools of the Coast will follow during the following months. Whichever modality is chosen (virtual, distance, hybrid, various options), it is essential that the State and civil society organisations consider the real situation of the indigenous population and schools, with a view to implement strategies to resolve the difficulties that have been evident in these three-four months of the health emergency and ensure the continuation of the educational process of indigenous children and adolescents. The challenge, ultimately, is to think of short and medium-term strategies that allow, in the current context of crisis, to face the deepening of the gaps and inequities that have organised and permeated the day-to-day of Ecuadorian education, as well as preventing the construction and institutionalisation of new formats of educational inequality in the immediate future.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/​s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Azim Premji University or Foundation.


Sebastián Granda Merchán, Professor, Salesian Polytechnic University (Universidad Politécnica Salesiana del Ecuador)

Bibliografía (Bibliography in Spanish)

Aguavil, D. (12 de junio de 2020). Educación Intercultural Bilingue sin conectividad. La Hora. Obtenido de
CEPAL. (2014). Los pueblos indígenas en América Latina. Avances en el último decenio y retos pendientes para la garantía de sus derechos. Santiago de Chile: ONU.
CLACSO. (20 de mayo de 2020). Pensar la pandemia. Observatorio Social del Coronavirus. Obtenido de
CONFENIAE. (26 de junio de 2020). CONAIE Comunicación. Obtenido de
Grupo de Investigación Educación e Interculturalidad – UPS. (2020). Línea de tiempo de las políticas y acciones del Ministerio de Educación del Ecuador en el contexto de la emergencia sanitaria. Quito: Documento de trabajo.
Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos. (2010). Las cifras del pueblo indígena. Una mirada desde el Censo de Población y Vivienda 2010. Quito: INEC.
Ministerio de Educación. (10 de junio de 2020). Ministerio de Educación. Obtenido de
Ministerio de Salud Pública. (22 de junio de 2020). https://​www​.salud​.gob​.ec/. Obtenido de
Servicio Nacional de Gestión de Riesgos y Emergencias. (28 de junio de 2020). Servicio Nacional de Gestión de Riesgos y Emergencias. Obtenido de
Secretaria del Sistema de Educación Intercultural Bilingue. (25 de junio de 2020). SESEIB: Secretaria del Sistema de Educación Intercultural Bilingue. Obtenido de
Simbaña, F. (2020). Contribución Ecuador. Efectos de COVID-19 en comunidades indígenas rurales y urbanas en Ecuador. En RISIU, Contribución continental al Informe del Relator Especial sobre los derechos de los pueblos indígenas sobre el impacto de COVID-19 en los pueblos indígenas. México: RISIU.
Tuaza, L. A. (4 de mayo de 2020). El impacto del COVID-19 en las comunidades indígenas de Chimborazo, Ecuador. Conferencia virtual organizada por el Centro de Estudios Latinoamericanos de la Universidad de Florida. Obtenido de

  1. This work is part of the research project, Education and teaching in the context of health emergency by COVID-19, of the Education and Interculturality Research Group of the Universidad Politécnica Salesiana del Ecuador. I appreciate the group’s comments and suggestions for assembling and polishing the text.↩︎

  2. Most managers and teachers are students and graduates of the Bilingual Intercultural Education degree at the Universidad Politécnica Salesiana.↩︎

  3. The data on the percentage of indigenous population is controversial and has been questioned by indigenous organizations. From their perspective, the percentage is much higher, reaching 35% or more of the total Ecuadorian population.↩︎

  4. It is planned to deliver a total of 248,275 printed self-learning guides in the languages ​​of each of the nationalities.↩︎

  5. In the Sierra, teachers have delivered the guides on foot (many times walking several hours), by bicycle, or by car (when one of the teachers at the educational institution has had such means of transportation). In the Amazon, teachers and parents have walked to the educational institution, walking several hours and even days.↩︎

  6. Several of the teachers with whom we spoke raised concerns about the effectiveness of the distance learning mode to ensure expected learning, especially those who have difficulty connecting with their students on a regular basis.↩︎