MEXICO CITY – With bottles of gel, temperature checks and wide-open windows, a new school year began Monday for millions of children in Mexico.
Officially, school is starting “in person, responsibly and orderly,” according to the Education Ministry.
In practice, it will be a system that is voluntary, diverse and hybrid between in-person learning and virtual lessons in structures some call chaotic and others gradual. Thousands of schools will open their doors after a year and half of closure, but it’s not clear how many will do so, nor how many students will show up, because beyond the federal, state and local regulations, the final decision will be made by schools and parents.
“There is complete uncertainty with respect to how it’s going to go,” said Bettina Delgadillo, director of a private school in San Pedro Garza Garcia, in Nuevo Leon, Mexico’s wealthiest municipality.
“There are schools that are better prepared and safer for children than supermarkets or establishments with open tables,” she said. “But I understand how for authorities, it’s complicated to say ‘here yes’ and ‘here no.’”
At the other end of the country in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, elementary school teacher Enrique Morales was equally baffled by a different set of problems. “They haven’t cleaned a lot of schools and it’s up to the parents to chip in to buy gel and everything else,” he said.
Around Simojovel, where Morales teaches, parents still hadn’t met to decide what to do, but it was clear for him that he didn’t want to take his two kids to the classroom. Chiapas has the lowest level of COVID-19 alert in Mexico — the only green state in the country’s coded system — but he buried his father in January and a few days ago his father-in-law.
The new school year begins at a time when Mexico is in the midst of its third wave of COVID-19 infections and has recorded more than 380,000 COVID-19 confirmed deaths. About 64% of its adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine, but very few children are vaccinated.
“The return to classes doesn’t necessarily mean a greater risk for the kids who return to school nor for the community,” said Miguel Betancourt, a public health expert. But they have to follow basic hygiene, vigilance and ventilation conditions and be prepared to constantly make adjustments if necessary, according to UNICEF and the Pan American Health Organization.
In Mexico, conditions vary. In some schools children are registered with scanned QR codes and their teachers receive regular rapid tests. Others lack even running water. But educators of both kinds of schools like Delgadillo and Morales agree that while children must be protected, distance learning is not sufficient.
“We are going to do everything possible so the children come two or three days, because the other option didn’t work,” Morales, the teacher in Chiapas, said. “But the government has to clean the classrooms.”
Mexico has more than 30 million students, 25 million of those in basic education. They make up a significant portion of the 100 million children affected by school closures across Latin America during the past year and half. The region already faced existing obstacles that put many of its students behind their peers in other parts of the world. UNICEF regional advisor Vincenzo Placco warned that the pandemic will sharpen the learning crisis in the region “with long-term consequences on the development of an entire generation of students.”
Placco said schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen because they are often safer than children’s homes.
In Mexico alone, 5.2 million students did not enroll in the last semester because of issues related to the pandemic or a lack of resources, according to the country’s Interior Ministry, which also warned of increases in domestic violence and suicides among minors.
Gradual reopening and constant re-evaluation will be key. Campeche, in southeast Mexico, was the first state to bring students back to the classroom in April. But it had to stop when infections spiked. Now state education authorities say there were lessons learned: better training for teachers and parents, try to have teachers stay in the communities where they teach so there’s less mobility and dedicate Friday’s for remedial work for students who have fallen behind.
The federal government ended up quashing an idea to have parents sign a letter confirming it was their decision to send their children to school. Many considered an attempt by the government to shirk responsibility for providing safe learning environments.
Morales said in Chiapas they will ask parents to sign because teachers don’t want to be held responsible if there are infections. In Mexico City, many private schools are requiring students to bring a signed formed each day saying that the student shows no symptoms of illness.
“Everything scares you,” said Rosario Plácido, who sells quesadillas, and has a 5-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. “The illness is frightening, but he who doesn’t go, doesn’t learn.”