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Lack of vaccines and lack of infrastructure make it difficult to return to school in Latin America

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School without water; poorly ventilated or too small classrooms to ensure the social distance required by the pandemic; exhausted and underpaid teachers; lack of vaccines and poor health systems; large wild or mountainous expanses without internet access. The list of challenges facing back to school in Latin America is enormous. In its April regional report, UNICEF (the UN Children’s Fund) said that as of March 31, only 8 countries had their schools fully open (Costa Rica, Nicaragua and six Caribbean islands), while another 10 had them closed ( among them Mexico, Venezuela and Peru) and 18 had partially opened (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador, among others).

“Three out of every five boys and girls who missed a school year in the world during the pandemic live in Latin America and the Caribbean,” warned UNICEF. Five months later, the region is trying to reverse this reality, albeit with big differences between countries.

Delays in the Andean region

Venezuela is the country that has kept schools closed for the longest time, in a region that can also include Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The government of Nicolás Maduro closed the classrooms on March 13, 2020, and just over a month before the start of a new school year, there are seven million students in limbo. The president ordered a return to in-person classes starting in October, a promise that clashes with a harsh health reality: only 4% of the population received two doses of vaccine against covid-19. Furthermore, there is a lack of teachers.

Union leader Raquel Figueroa warns that 100,000 teachers have emigrated from the country or left the profession in the last five years, expelled by the political and economic crisis. “If there is a 40% deficit of teachers, how are they going to open more shifts to reduce the number of students per course, for example?”, asks Figueroa. In Venezuela, a teacher earns the equivalent of 50 reais.

The Colombian Government, in turn, announced this month the return to classroom classes in the public system, after a year and a half of suspension. The decision did not please the unions, which called for protests. Today, despite government determination, more than half of public schools remain closed, according to calculations by the Ministry of Education. In addition, the system has a serious infrastructure deficit, particularly in rural areas. The reality is different in Bogotá, where a gradual reopening of schools has been advancing since January: more than 99% of public schools in the capital have already resumed on-site classes. Similar infrastructure problems affect Peru.

According to official data, in the metropolitan region of Lima alone, there are more than 14,600 schools that are unable to guarantee protection measures against covid-19 or are located in neighborhoods with high transmission of the virus. This year Peru earmarked the equivalent of 640 million reais for public schools to install portable lavatories that lack toilets, “but many do not have direct access to water,” says José Carlos Vera, director of Decentralized Management at the Ministry of Education. To make up for the lack of classes, says Vera, the ministry created the Learning in the Community program, with 185 places for recreational, sports and socialization activities. However, the full return to classrooms will not take place before the end of the year, when the Government hopes to have vaccinated the 675,022 teachers in the public system. So far, only 50% of teachers have received the vaccine.

A group of children attend a class at the home of teacher Milagros Agreda in Caracas, Venezuela, this month. RAYNER PENA R / EFE

Since June, neighboring Ecuador has also moved towards returning to face-to-face classes, for now on a voluntary basis. At the beginning of the school year, the government of conservative Guillermo Lasso announced that primary and secondary schools could voluntarily start returning to the classroom if they comply with sanitary protocols. The project started with 1,301 public and private primary and secondary education centers. More than a thousand of them were public establishments and in rural areas, where internet access is more limited. “Children whose parents decide not to send them to school will continue their studies at home,” the Ministry of Education announced at the time. Almost three months later, there are 2,691 primary and secondary schools authorized to offer face-to-face classes. Only 270,000 students, out of a total of 4.4 million, are taught entirely in person.

In Brazil, two speeds

Brazil spent 13 months with closed classrooms. From the beginning of August, finally, public schools began to reopen in almost every state; those that remain hope to do so in September. There is, however, no single rule for the return, in a huge country where the States have a lot of autonomy. Some capitals, such as Manaus, have completely resumed classroom teaching, while others, such as Fortaleza, have a hybrid model, with students taking turns and taking part in distance learning activities. In any case, in-person classes are not yet mandatory for students, and several governors have chosen to establish maximum capacities to ensure distance between students. In the most populous city in the country, São Paulo, 64% of students already attend classroom classes, while 36% are still in activities online.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the poorest students have had the least access to distance education in Brazil. Many even stopped studying because they didn’t have a cell phone or internet access. Last year, 172,000 children between the ages of 6 and 17 dropped out of school in the country, according to a World Bank estimate. Private schools, on the other hand, opened their doors last year in a large part of the country, after intense pressure from companies, which said they were better prepared to follow the sanitary measures. In São Paulo, for example, they are authorized to operate at 100% of their capacity.

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Mexico returns to classrooms

Mexico is one of the countries in the world that kept classrooms closed for the longest time, 17 months, and the Government’s intention is to reopen them on this Monday in a universal way. For this, all students and teachers of all levels of education are invited. The return to classroom classes has faced great resistance from teachers, some dissatisfied with the lack of payment of their salary, others because they do not believe that schools have sufficient sanitary conditions to return to normality. Many schools in Mexico do not even have running water and were looted during the closing period.

Families are also not convinced about the presence of children in classrooms. They fear that their children will be infected in schools, even though millions of children are already on the streets, in stores, anywhere, because the entire economy is open. A survey carried out by an association with an eloquent name, AbreMiEscuela (“open my school”), certified 97 contagions in 23,108 schools that have been open for more than a month recently in different states. “Life comes first”, says the union central CNTE, whose teachers rejected the idea of ​​going back to classroom classes and prefer to continue teaching remotely. The teachers, however, have already been vaccinated, although it was with the Chinese CanSino, which raised some doubts about their protection. Some professors chose to receive one more dose from a different laboratory.

Southern Cone advances at the pace of vaccines

Argentina, Uruguay and Chile are making progress, with restrictions, towards the standardization of education. The first will resume “full classroom teaching” on Wednesday, after a year and a half of exceptional measures. The 2020 school year was developed, except for the initial two weeks, in a virtual way, with the classrooms closed. In 2021, teachers were included among the priority groups to receive the vaccine and each province organized a schedule for returning to face-to-face teaching. First, with the rooms divided into “bubbles” dispersed throughout school hours. Starting next week, with the same number of students as before the pandemic, but maintaining traditional prevention measures.

Professor Gaston Siano welcomes his students during the first day of face-to-face classes in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on October 13, 2020.
Professor Gaston Siano welcomes his students during the first day of face-to-face classes in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on October 13, 2020. AGUSTIN MARCARIAN / Reuters

Uruguay, in turn, was the country in South America that kept schools closed for fewer days. In June 2020, when much of the continent was struggling to contain the expansion of the coronavirus and prevent the collapse of its hospital systems, the number of cases in the country was very low and the Executive led by Luis Lacalle Pou announced the return of in-person classes. It was a unique case and the decision was upheld for the rest of the year, but the landscape changed in the first few months of 2021, when Uruguay reached its peak of infections. In late March, the Government decided to close all schools, and the return was staggered. The return was accompanied by the announcement that young people aged 12 to 18 would be included in the vaccination campaign.

Another country with high vaccination rates is Chile. The country has reopened 74% of schools, according to data from the Ministry of Education. The number coincides with the best health situation in the entire pandemic and with mass vaccination. While the daily rate of new covid-19 cases is 1.1%, 84.4% of the target population (15,200,000 people) have completed their covid-19 immunization regimen. Anyway, the return to classroom classes has depended to a great extent on the management system of schools, with a higher percentage among private ones and less among public and mixed ones.

In downtown Santiago, where many of the most emblematic private schools are located, none of the 44 municipal schools has reopened. In the south of the capital, Patricia Herrera, for example, is responsible for her 7 and 8 year old grandchildren. “They haven’t set foot in school since the first days of March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic,” she says by telephone from the commune of La Cisterna. The grandchildren are enrolled in a school in La Pintana, a popular area of ​​the city, which has not opened its doors for 16 months. “In December, school ends, I think [as crianças] they won’t come back until 2022”, he laments.

With texts from Carmen Morán Breña (Mexico City); Centenera Sea (Buenos Aires); Beatriz Juca (São Paulo); Santiago Torrado (Bogota); Florantonia Singer (Caracas); Jacqueline Fowks (Lime); Sara Spain (Quito); Federico Rivas Molina (Buenos Aires).

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