BUENOS AIRES – In-person classes will once again be held in Buenos Aires and various Argentine provinces after almost a year with only virtual classes available due to the coronavirus pandemic at the start of a program being criticized by assorted groups and unions because of the danger of infection.
After the summer vacations, the new school cycle began on Wednesday with in-person classes amid stringent health measures as certain educational levels in the capital and in Santa Fe, Santiago del Estero and Jujuy, as well as support activities in Buenos Aires province, while the rest of the districts will begin bringing students back into class in a phased program into mid-March.
“It’s something expected by everyone, a cautious return in the complexity we’re going through. It’s a different school from the pre-pandemic period, where (health) protocols have to be implemented,” Education Minister Nicolas Trotta told Radio El Destape, emphasizing the need for an equilibrium between the law and education, in-person learning and health protection.
Last Friday, the decision to return students to their classrooms was made official during a meeting among government officials and the education ministries from the country’s 23 provinces and the city of Buenos Aires.
The pandemic in March 2020 forces authorities to suspend in-person classes during the school year that was already under way.
Although educational authorities opted for online learning, soon clear limits and inequities were encountered across the extensive national territory where more than 40 percent of the population lives in poverty and where not all families have Internet access.
The government edited the educational books so that they could be used at home and pushed forward with educational content online and via public radio and television, but the debate about returning students to the classroom quickly sparked controversy, especially because of criticism by the main opposition coalition of the effects of the “eternal quarantine” on the economy and on education.
Although in July, protocols were established for returning kids to their classes, that was only partially accomplished in some provinces and only in a temporary manner.
“The learning that could not be achieved in 2020 will be provided in 2021, combining both class years into one school year (and) allowing for the intensification in teaching, curricular reorganization and (proper credit)” for the students, authorities said after the Friday meeting.
On Wednesday morning, the busy streets of the capital partially returned to normal. Once again, parents brought their kids to school. On Wednesday, 370,493 students went back to elementary school grades 1-3, special education classes and the first two years of high school.
“We had promised to start today and we’re starting, but a lot of work went into getting to this day and having as many kids as possible safely in class,” said Mayor Horacio Rodriguez Larreta, a member of the political opposition to President Alberto Fernandez.
In the coming weeks, the rest of the students at all public and private schools in Buenos Aires will be back in their classes, a total of 785,152 children.
To achieve that, the use of public transport – curtailed since last March – has been expanded so that students, teachers and educational workers may use it, although they must have the proper public transport permit.
The rule is that students must return to their classes from Monday through Friday, but – in a staggered manner – they must have their temperature taken and use hand sanitizer before they are allowed into their classrooms.
Facemasks are obligatory for students 5 years old and up and special facemasks will be provided for teachers. In addition, just recently, the capital government opened three testing centers so that personnel may get themselves tested for COVID-19 voluntarily and for free, something that 110,000 workers have already done.
“All the kids who come in have to use facemasks all day long, the teachers use a mask to take care of themselves, there’s 1.5 meters (5 feet) of social distancing,” capital Education Minister Soledad Acuña said, adding that recreation will still be allowed but students must stay in specially designated “bubbles” and there must be a lot of ventilation in the classrooms and work spaces.
At the ever-difficult start of classes in Argentina, which are often accompanied by teachers striking to demand pay hikes to compensate them for the country’s high inflation, added to the mix this year is the disagreement of some unions with the very idea of returning to in-person teaching in the middle of the pandemic.
In the capital, the Union of Education Workers, the main union, which includes 15,000 educational workers, called for a day of “organization, struggle and publicity” to reject the local government protocol “because it’s ambiguous, imprecise, contradictory, partial and insufficient to guarantee the health of the educational community.”
The Ademys union, with some 3,000 members, went further, calling for a 72-hour strike “in the face of the attempt to return to in-person classes without epidemiological, infrastructure and salary conditions,” according to a statement provided to EFE.
Since the start of the pandemic, Argentina has confirmed 2.03 million coronavirus cases, of whom 144,337 are presently still sick and 50,432 have died.
In addition, the Health Ministry said that as per last Friday, 367,665 people – for the moment only health workers – have been inoculated with their first dose and 222,185 have already received their second dose of Russia’s Sputnik V anti-COVID vaccine.