Last year was just starting when the Covid-19 sent almost all South American students home. With the end of the austral summer, schools are now trying to reopen their doors despite the misgivings of parents and teachers.
Only one week after starting, Argentina suspended the classroom classes for 2020. It was March 15 and the pandemic was already gripping much of the world in the early stages of a global crisis that in May would remove 1.2 billion students from its classrooms, according to Unesco data. More than 160 million in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Since then, Argentine students followed virtual classes that, in the vast majority, were linked to the southern summer holidays. Until last week, when some schools started a plan of gradual return to the classrooms that must conclude on March 8.
But, despite the security measures – which include rotating schedules and maintain part of the virtual education – fear is still present in this country, which already has 51,100 deaths from coronavirus and more than two million infections.
“The experience was one of great uncertainty, and fear. But the school has very spacious classrooms, with a lot of ventilation. Everyone is wearing a chinstrap all the time,” Carlos Nehme, father of Olivia, aged six, told AFP. pick her up from her first day of classes in Buenos Aires.
Nor do teachers feel totally safe to return, and their unions question the precarious means to do so.
Face-to-face classes should start when we are all vaccinated
As in Chile, where the teachers’ college has asked to postpone the start of face-to-face classes until April 15, with the most advanced mass vaccination campaign.
The start date remains, however, for March 1, when some 9,000 schools – 1,600 of them private – must start the school year under a hybrid model of face-to-face, for now voluntary, and virtual classes.
“It seems reckless to me because the children will not be able to avoid contact, the teachers will not be 100% pending. The face-to-face classes should begin when we are all vaccinated,” lamented Laura Méndez, mother of a seven-year-old boy.
Chilean schools must comply with preventive measures such as the mandatory use of masks, hand washing, avoid concentrations of more than 50 people, disinfect classrooms and set delayed times for entry and exit.
To these is added the complex parallel task of vaccinating more than half a million teachers and school officials, started 15 days before the start of classes.
Happy children, anxious parents
More ambitious is the objective of Uruguay, where the school year begins on March 1 with a mandatory presence for students in the public system, despite the misgivings of the teachers’ unions.
Praised for its low contagion rates in the first wave, the small South American country came to resume face-to-face classes on a voluntary basis since last June, although many parents continued to opt for the virtual mode.
Colombia is on a similar path, where the Ministry of Education estimates that face-to-face classes are held today in 60% of the country.
This gradual return, which combines physical and virtual classrooms for those who wish, started in September, but had to stop due to the increase in infections registered in December and January in some areas of the country.
The reopening was delayed until February 15 in Bogotá and other regions such as Cúcuta (northeast), where Sandra Tristancho returned to take her four-year-old daughter to a private garden for the first time since the suspension decreed on March 15, 2020.
“She was happy (…), we were anxious,” this 36-year-old bank employee told AFP.
Presence or isolation
The suspension of face-to-face classes has also had an impact on the quality of teaching in a continent that was already experiencing strong inequalities.
“My children were approved because there was not much choice, but the learning did not have the same quality as if they were attending school,” says Vania Ribeiro, a domestic worker with two adolescent children who study at a state school in the interior of Rio de Janeiro .
Second country with the most deaths from coronavirus, Brazil has been hit hard by a pandemic that closed many of its schools for almost a year. After the summer break, some centers began to open, such as the state schools in Sao Paulo -the richest state in the country-, which resumed face-to-face activities with a capacity of between 35% and 70%, on a rotating basis.
Private schools, which account for 19% of primary and secondary students in Brazil, are also resuming their activities, alternating optional face-to-face classes and remote classrooms.
In Rio, however, only 38 centers of the municipal network were authorized to receive students, as they were the only ones with up-to-date hygiene and space infrastructures.
Meanwhile, in Ecuador, where face-to-face classes have been suspended for almost a year for 4.1 million students, the situation of more than a million of them is especially worrying, without a computer or internet access at home.
Nor does the physical return to the classroom in Peru have a date set, which will start the next school year virtually on March 15, pending the evolution of the pandemic.
“It’s not easy for us to accept another year like this,” laments Serena Rangel, a 36-year-old social communicator with a four-year-old son.
“We need a little more normality so that my son’s development is not affected any more, because we are very concerned about the consequences of being between 3 and 4 years old in social isolation.”