In all of history there has probably not been a more complicated return to school than the one facing a world mired in an ongoing pandemic. 17 months ago Mexico closed classrooms throughout the country to stop contagion and although certain states have been opening some schools, this Monday the return will be universal for pre-school, primary and secondary school students. It will not be easy. The return collides with the reluctance of many families and teachers who do not just see sufficient sanitary conditions to guarantee the absence of risks. In the other angle, there are organizations that have been working for months to promote the return to the classroom. If all economic activity is open, why aren’t the schools? They wonder. The need to tackle as soon as possible the enormous school delays that occur in Mexico encourages the Government to maintain a firm pulse on this matter: “Rain, shine or lightning”, on August 30 face-to-face classes will return, said the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
Some states, such as Campeche or Mexico City, tried weeks ago, but the spikes in infections reversed the initiative. In any case, the attitude of the Mexican government is not audacious, since it is one of the few countries that has not yet opened its schools and millions of students have been studying poorly at distance or on television. The return to face-to-face teaching is already seen in the international community as something desirable and necessary, but not everyone sees it in the same way. States such as Michoacán and Hidalgo have already announced that their students will remain at home (that is, on the street) due to their pandemic situation. The families are not very satisfied either. Although there are no reliable data, some surveys commissioned by the media indicated just a few days ago that just over 60% of households prefer to have their children with them. And there are not a few teachers who think similarly. The union coordinator CNTE has prepared an online survey among parents, the results of which will be presented this Wednesday. They try to probe their readiness for the face-to-face return. Does the school have the sanitary materials and adequate infrastructure for this? They ask them. Is it a risk to return without all those involved in the educational process being vaccinated? And they also wonder about the Delta variant, which affects the youngest.
Some union leaders have already announced that teachers will not return. The answers have come from here and there by the political leaders. The Undersecretary of Health, Hugo López-Gatell, has repeated that the incidence in the smallest is not far from high. But although Mexico has open vaccination between 18 and 29 years of age, in other countries they are more advanced, with 15 or 16-year-old high school students. In March this year, priority was given to immunizing teachers who received the Chinese CanSino vaccine, a single dose, with a view to resuming classes. Not everyone has trusted that laboratory and some are not vaccinated. Advances, like almost everything in Mexico, go at very different speeds depending on the state in question. In Mexico City, one of the capitals with the most success in this process, they presented their data for back to school on Tuesday: the high vaccination rates, the millions invested in adapting the schools and the collaboration in cleaning and protocols with families and schools. “Entering class is essential. Only five countries have not established education as an essential activity, it is a child’s right ”, said the Head of Government, Claudia Sheinbaum. And the federal responsible for Education in the City, Luis Humberto Fernández, has highlighted that enrollment to start the course “does not show a substantial decline”, although there are no closed data. He has been aware that there is encouragement to start, but also “some fear” on the part of the families. The comparison with other countries, he said, allows us to observe how the first few days the absences will be greater and will be mitigated with the passage of time. “Confidence will grow.” “Our obligation is to offer the service,” he replied to journalists who questioned him about the refusal of teachers and families to go to school.
Local governments have made an effort to adapt the conditions of the schools, in many of which they have had to install the entire sanitary system, but that process has not been completed everywhere and there are rural schools that do not have potable water, for example . In these months of pandemic, closed schools have been attacked. The organization Mexicanos Primero counted about 5,500 vandalized schools for which repair would need about 550 million pesos, they calculate. They stole all kinds of material, including toilets.
In hundreds of schools, face masks and gel will be distributed, as marked by the protocol designed by the Ministry of Public Education (SEP). Thermometers will be available to measure temperature before entering school and hand washing is encouraged. Healthy distance has also been established, but it is unknown how this rule can be met if all children attend class as before the pandemic, in the same spaces. School meetings and ceremonies are prohibited to avoid crowds. Finally, it is requested to give priority to open spaces.
“There has been no clarity on the most effective way to protect or prevent. Much scientific knowledge has not reached the people. For example, with the mask, but also with the ventilation. The SEP in its first protocols did not include ventilation ”, criticized Ana Cárdenas, one of the activist mothers of the Abremiescuela movement, who for months have been pressing for the orderly and safe return of the schools. “Open spaces are essential, and yet priority has been given to gel or mask,” he says. The authorities of Mexico City have responded to this matter, recognizing that all classrooms are not in the same conditions for it.
In spite of everything, Cárdenas maintains that the main problem for the face-to-face return is being raised by the parents. “Fear, in some cases, prevents a minimally scientific debate. Some families do not want their children to go, because they fear that they will infect their grandparents, for example. One of the surveys conducted by this organization revealed that parents were aware that children were not learning properly from home and that they were suffering from emotional problems, but they refused to take them to school in person. “I understand fear, but the school protects,” says Cárdenas. In states such as Jalisco, San Luis Potosí, Coahuila or Guanajuato, among others, where schools were open for more than a month, they were able to verify that they were not a source of contagion. Their data show that 97 people were infected in a total of 23,108 schools where more than 900,000 students and teachers lived together.
“You have to think about the needs of children, their learning and their social-emotional development. It is not irresponsible to open schools if it is done in a safe way, ”says Cárdenas. “Children”, he says, “have been excluded from this process and must be part of the solution,” he says. Not surprisingly, teachers and students know how to take better care of themselves than their parents, he continues. “For example, in the use of the mask.”
Mexico has deep reasons to go back to school. Its educational system presents significant deficiencies and the gap between the poorest and the well-off areas has only widened in these times with distance learning, which many families have not been able to adequately satisfy. “If the economy is open, why isn’t education also an alternative?” Asks Lorena Guillé-Laris, director of the Coca-Cola FEMSA Foundation, which collaborates in giving courses to train teachers in socio-emotional skills, lesson planning, problem solving and other skills associated with the needs imposed by the pandemic.
Guillé-Laris knows that in Mexico there are many inequalities, but “the pandemic invites us to see nuances, it is not all or nothing. There are places where, indeed, schools can be opened, children must be the priority and have access to education. It is vital in early childhood, ”he says. And he points to another fact to take into account: “With the return to economic activity, many more men than women have returned to their jobs because they are with their children at home. Education and the economy are closely related and also with the development of the following generations ”.
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