MONTEVIDEO – Uruguay’s relatively low number of coronavirus cases and the strict health protocols adopted there have enabled it to become the first Latin American country to resume in-person schooling following a three-month hiatus.
Even so, students have had to follow certain guidelines before being allowed to return to their classrooms, including wearing a face covering, disinfecting their shoes on a sanitizing mat and answering a brief questionnaire.
Once inside their schools, they are expected to maintain appropriate social distancing from their classmates and teachers, as well as other school personnel.
Elementary schools, high schools and technical schools nationwide have been fully reopened over the past week to receive some 700,000 students, a process that began on April 22 at 460 rural schools even though the Uruguayan Teachers’ Federation (FUM) had warned then that the conditions were not yet in place.
The decision was the result of a coordinated process carried out by Uruguay’s National Public Education Administration (ANEP), the country’s Health Ministry and the National Emergency System, ANEP President Robert Silva said, adding that Uruguay has to become aware that “zero risk does not exist.”
He also stressed the importance of face-to-face encounters between students and educators, saying there is no substitute for that dynamic.
“Looking each other in the eyes, having regular contact, shaking hands, embracing, maybe having sincere talks in private, with the warmth of face-to-face interaction, is irreplaceable,” Silva said.
Nevertheless, Silva acknowledged that a great deal of uncertainty persists. “If we have to reverse course, we’ll act decisively.”
Even though the ANEP president said COVID-19 has had quite a big impact on education in Uruguay, he said national policies relating to the use of technology to supplement teaching and learning have been essential because they have allowed nearly 75 percent of youth to continue their schooling via distance learning.
Vulnerable sectors faced greater interruptions, although Silva noted that a “strategic alliance” was achieved with families to generate support for students and engender a sense of responsibility for completing the tasks assigned.
For example, he explained that in cases where there was no connectivity via educational platforms, schools and households communicated via social media or WhatsApp. Assignments were then delivered to adults when they picked up meals at their children’s schools, which had remained open for that purpose.
Silva also hailed the work done by teachers during the months of distance learning, saying they had been mostly successful with the different strategies they used to replace in-person instruction.
For his part, the principal of Colegio Español Cervantes in Montevideo, Carlos Cambon, spoke to EFE about the work being carried out at his institution.
He said that “by no means” has 2020 been a lost year because teachers achieved excellent results with the methods they used to replace in-person schooling.
“The (students) returned with their notebooks and their knowledge very polished, so we think that, compared to what we thought it was going to be like, 2020 isn’t going to be that rough going,” Cambon said.
Referring to the resumption of in-person instruction, he said groups of students have been subdivided into smaller groups, class hours have been reduced and teachers and students must wear face coverings upon entering and leaving the premises and during recess time.
Masks are not used in class, although 1.5 meters (five feet) of social distancing must be maintained.
Elbia Pereira, the FUM’s secretary-general, said the teachers’ federation has worked intensely to ensure that proper protocols are in place to protect students and staff.
“We’ve worked hard since the initial stage,” she said of the reopening of 460 rural schools at a time when, in her opinion, the right conditions were not in place for the resumption of in-person schooling.
“For us, the call to resume classes was hasty. Even so, there was never a lack of commitment from the teachers and (school) officials,” Pereira said.
The FUM secretary-general also praised a program launched in 2007 in Uruguay that ensures each child in the country’s public-school system has a laptop computer.
She said that had made it possible for all students to study during the pandemic, although she added that “no tool, no matter how modern,” is a substitute for in-person contact with a teacher.
Uruguay thus far has managed to keep the spread of the coronavirus under control.
Since the country registered its first four cases and declared a health emergency on March 13, the number of confirmed cases and deaths attributed to COVID-19 stands at 955 (87 of which are active) and 28, respectively.