ASUNCION – Paraguay began its school year on Tuesday with a combination of virtual and in-person classes, a policy that has not convinced the teachers unions, who at a demonstration in the capital of Asuncion reiterated their rejection of the in-person aspect of instruction saying that the schools are not prepared to deal with the COVID-19 cases that could result.
On the first day of classes, after a year without them, some schools remained closed to students while others began receiving small groups of students, albeit without the hullabaloo that in past years has surrounded the occasion.
One of the schools resuming in-person teaching was the Presidente Franco National High School, in downtown Asuncion, which on Tuesday welcomed 45 seventh-grade students ages 12-13.
During the coming days, more students will gradually be allowed to come back to the school – and to others around the country – but they will alternate between virtual and in-person classes, as the high school’s principal, Julio Benitez, told EFE.
To resume in-person classes, the Presidente Franco school has set up in its courtyard wash-basins with soap and alcohol, has reduced the number of students per classroom to a maximum of 15 and has divided its facilities into separated zones.
The 45 students who began classes on Tuesday had to wash their hands upon entering the school and have their temperatures taken before they were allowed to go to their classrooms to meet their new classmates and teachers, all without removing their facemasks.
Inside the classrooms, yellow X’s have been placed on the floor to mark the safe distance between desks and another yellow line marks the space reserved exclusively for the teacher in front of the blackboard.
This year, in addition to being required to conduct in-person instruction, teachers have also had to explain to their students the safety protocols that everyone must follow to try and limit COVID-19 infections.
Despite the efforts to resume classes even while the coronavirus pandemic is still ravaging society, Benitez expressed confidence that things would return to a certain kind of normal “as soon as possible.”
“The kids are anxious, too. We’re naturally social beings. Come what may, we need to interact. Learning is not accomplished only at a distance. Interacting is how you learn better,” Benitez told EFE.
He also acknowledged that during the past school year there were “difficulties” in terms of virtual teaching due to connection problems and the economic situation of some families, but he added that the educational community made great efforts to facilitate long-distance learning.
In this unusual return to school, after a year of online classes, educational faculty are aware that many students could be suffering from psychological problems and so they are not ruling out reevaluating the situation at the end of the first quarter.
The resumption of in-person classes, teachers unions say, constitutes “too great a risk,” as one of the members of the National Educators Union, Reinaldo Figueredo, told EFE.
“Our public institutions are not in the condition to (take in) kids, young people and workers safely … There’s also a high level of infection at this time in Paraguay, and so any person of sound mind has to think twice about starting in-person learning,” Figueredo said.
The teachers’ unions blamed the Education Ministry for its lack of foresight in the matter and noted that “it lost eight months without doing anything.”
Figueredo said that the educational community will have to “perform miracles” to guarantee safe in-person learning, particularly given that many schools are run-down, have not been kept in good repair and the pandemic is still under way.
The unions are demanding that online teaching continue “until the conditions exist where (the safety of students and teachers) can at least be minimally guaranteed.”
In addition, they are asking the authorities to give teachers priority in being inoculated against the coronavirus, asserting that they are working in a “high risk” environment.
Amid this criticism, Paraguayan President Mario Abdo Benitez attended on Tuesday the start of classes at a high school in the country’s interior and sent a message to the public via his Twitter account.
Since March 2020, Paraguay has confirmed 154,904 coronavirus cases and 3,119 deaths from COVID-19, while 129,631 patients are deemed to have recovered, according to the latest figures from the Health Ministry.
The average number of confirmed daily infections now stands at 1,094, the highest level since the start of the pandemic, according to the ministry’s figures.