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Vaccine shortages and lack of infrastructure hamper back to school in Latin America

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Schools without water, poorly ventilated or very small classrooms to guarantee the social distance required by the pandemic; exhausted and underpaid teachers; lack of vaccines and poor health systems; large expanses of jungle or mountains without internet access. The list of challenges facing back to school in Latin America is huge. In its regional report for April, Unicef, the UN office for children, it said that as of March 31, only eight countries had their schools fully open (Costa Rica, Nicaragua and six Caribbean islands), 10 countries had them closed (among them Mexico, Venezuela and Peru) and another 18 countries maintained them partially open (Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Bolivia, Paraguay and Ecuador, among others).

“Three out of every five children who lost a school year in the world during the pandemic live in Latin America and the Caribbean,” warned UNICEF. Five months later, the region tries to reverse this reality, although with great differences between countries.

Delays in the Andean region

Venezuela is the country that has kept its schools closed the longest and the one that has delayed the reopening the longest, in a region that also includes Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The government of Nicolás Maduro closed the classrooms on March 13, 2020 and just over a month after the start of a new cycle there are seven million students in limbo. The president has ordered the return to face-to-face classes starting in October, a promise that has collided with a harsh health reality: only 4% of the population has received the complete vaccine against covid-19. In addition, 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?”, He says. A school teacher in Venezuela charges the equivalent of eight euros a month.

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The Government of Colombia, meanwhile, announced this month the return to face-to-face classes in the public system, after a year and a half of suspension. The decision has not gone well with the unions, which have called demonstrations. Today, despite the directive, more than half of public schools remain closed, according to calculations by the Ministry of Education. The system also has a serious infrastructure deficit, especially in rural areas. The reality is different in Bogotá, where progress has been made since January towards a gradual reopening of schools: more than 99% of the capital’s public schools have already returned to the classroom.

Similar infrastructure problems affect Peru. According to official data, in Metropolitan Lima alone there are more than 14,600 schools that are not in a position to guarantee protection measures against covid-19 or are in neighborhoods with high transmission of the virus. Peru has allocated some 123 million dollars (about 104 million euros) this year for state schools to enable portable sinks where hygienic services are lacking, “but many do not have direct access to water,” says José Carlos Vera, director of Decentralized Management. of the Ministry of Education. To compensate for the lack of classes, Vera indicates that the ministry has created the Aprendo en Comunidad program, with 185 places for recreational, sports and socialization activities. The total return to the classrooms will not be, in any case, before the end of the year, when the Government hopes to have vaccinated the 675,022 teachers in the public system. To date, only 50% of teachers have received the injection.

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

Neighboring Ecuador has also been moving towards presence since June, for now on a voluntary basis. At the opening of the school year, the government of the conservative Guillermo Lasso ordered that primary and secondary schools could voluntarily return to the classroom if they complied with the care protocols. The project started with 1,301 public and private primary and secondary schools. The majority, more than 1,000, were public establishments and in rural areas, where internet access is more limited. “Parents who decide not to send their children to school will continue their studies at home,” announced the Ministry of Education at the time. Almost three months later, there are 2,691 primary and secondary schools authorized for attendance. Only 270,000 students, out of a total of 4.4 million, fully attend classrooms.

Brazil, the speed

Brazil has been 13 months with closed classes. Since the beginning of August, finally, public schools have begun to reopen in almost every state; those who are missing hope to do so in September. There is, however, no single rule for return, in a huge country where the regions have a lot of autonomy. Some capitals, such as Manaus (in the State of Amazonas), have completely returned to face-to-face, while others like Fortaleza (in Ceará) have a hybrid model, with students taking turns and part of the distance activities. In any case, going to school is not yet mandatory for students and several governors have chosen to establish maximum capacities to guarantee the distance between students. In the most populated city in the country, São Paulo, 64% of students already participate in face-to-face classes, while 36% are still in online activities.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, it is the poorest students who have had the least access to distance education in Brazil. Many have even stopped studying because they don’t even have a mobile 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 an estimate from a World Bank report. In private schools, on the other hand, the doors were opened last year in much of the country, after intense pressure from companies, which claimed to be better prepared to follow sanitary measures. In São Paulo, for example, they are authorized to operate at 100% of their capacity.

Mexico goes back to school

Mexico is one of the countries in the world that has kept classrooms closed for the longest time, about 17 months, and the will of the Government is to open them now, this Monday, universally. All students and teachers from the youngest to the end of secondary school are summoned to this. The return to classes has met with great reluctance on the part of teachers, some annoyed by the lack of payment of their salary, and others because they do not believe that the schools have sufficient sanitary conditions to return to normality. Many centers in Mexico do not even have running water and during the pandemic closure they have been looted.

Nor are families convinced by the presence of children in classrooms. They fear contagion among their own derived from school, although the truth is that millions of children are on the streets, in stores, anywhere, because the entire economy is open. A survey by an association with an eloquent name, AbremiEscuela, certified 97 infections in 23,108 schools that were open for more than a month at this time in different States. “Life comes first,” they say in the CNTE union coordinator, whose associate teachers have rejected the idea of ​​going back to the classroom and prefer to continue teaching online. The teachers, however, have already received their vaccine, although it was the Chinese CanSino, which has aroused some suspicions about their protection. Some teachers have chosen to add another dose from a different laboratory.

The Southern Cone, at the rate of vaccines

Argentina, Uruguay and Chile are advancing, with restrictions, towards educational normalization. The first will return to “full presence” on September 1, after a year and a half of exceptional measures. The 2020 school year was developed, except for the initial two weeks, virtually, with the classrooms closed. In 2021, teachers were included among the priority staff to receive the vaccine and each province organized the schedule for returning to the classroom. First, with the classes divided into bubbles spread over the school timetable. 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, October 13, 2020.
Professor Gaston Siano welcomes his students during the first day of face-to-face classes, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, October 13, 2020. AGUSTIN MARCARIAN / Reuters

Uruguay, meanwhile, has been the country in South America that has kept schools closed for the fewest days. In June 2020, when much of the continent was struggling to stop the expansion of the coronavirus and avoid the collapse of its hospital systems, the number of cases in that country was very low and the Executive led by Luis Lacalle Pou announced the return of classes face-to-face. It was a unique case and the decision was maintained for the rest of the year, but the panorama changed in the first months of 2021, when the country reached its peak of infections. At the end of March, the Government decided to close all schools and the return has been staggered. The return was accompanied by the announcement that young people between the ages of 12 and 18 would be included in the vaccination campaign.

Another country with high vaccination rates has been Chile. The country has reopened 74% of schools, according to data from the Ministry of Education. The figure coincides with the best health situation of the entire pandemic and massive vaccination. While the positivity is at 1.1%, 84.4% of the target population (15,200,000 people) have finished their immunization scheme against covid-19. In any case, the return to classes has largely depended on the school management system, with a higher percentage among private schools and less among public and concerted schools.

In the municipality of Santiago, the center of the city where many of the most emblematic private companies are located, none of the 44 municipalities have opened. In the south of the city, Patricia Herrera, for example, is in charge of her 7 and 8-year-old grandchildren. “They have not set foot in the school since the first days of March 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic,” he tells the phone from the municipality of La Cisterna. They go to an establishment in La Pintana, a popular area of ​​the capital, which has not opened in these 16 months. “Classes end in December, I don’t think they will rejoin until 2022,” he laments.

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

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