SANTIAGO – Chilean schools are set to reopen March 1. But teachers unions claim a safe return is impossible given the sanitary situation. And while politicians insult teachers, the pandemic is imposing brutal experiences.
Pandemic-related restrictions have kept millions of children out of the classroom worldwide. In Chile, most schools remained shut for the 2020 academic year, although Education Minister Raúl Figueroa had tried several times to send children back to the classroom. This debate is now resurging with much more force.
On Tuesday, Economy Minister Lucas Palacios told T13 Radio that “in the case of teachers, I am struck by the fact that they are finding ways not to work.” Palacios, of the right-wing Independent Democratic Union (UDI) party, later backtracked on Twitter, saying he criticized the teachers union rather than all teachers. But the president of the Metropolitan region’s teachers college, Mario Aguilar, called the comments “an offense”.
Palacios was the second high-profile politician in two days sparking such controversy. On Monday, senator Iván Moreira, also of the UDI party, said that “many [teachers] have been on vacation the whole last year.” After a public outcry, Moreira, like Palacios, deflected to a teachers union, the CPC, which he called “a left-wing political organ.”
Hice una crítica política dirigida al "Colegio Profesores" y No a los profesores en general. Es cosa de ver el video.
Colegio de profesores es un órgano político de izquierda, lo único que hace es atacar al Gob.e impedir q niños vuelvan a clase.
Disculpas a la izquierda jamás.!! https://t.co/amDb2enU2m
— Ivan Moreira Barros (@ivanmoreirab) February 15, 2021
What do parents think?
Online teaching was the norm last year, putting intense pressure on parents. Loretto Urra, who has a nine-year-old son, told Chile Today that “for us as parents it was very stressful as the children did not learn much with online lessons. Some teachers went over things very quickly and many of us did not understand everything.”
Her son Diego suffers from ADHD, and online learning hindered his ability to learn, as not all teachers took the time to cover topics like they would in the classroom. “I feel like I learned more in school than at home. I miss playing and talking to my friends,” he told Chile Today.
His school plans to implement a scheme this year which involves two weeks online class and two weeks classroom presence per month. The scheme allows the school to reduce the number of students on the premises.
Loretto Urra thinks it would be better to wait. “It is not the right time for them to go back to school. I would wait until about 50 or 60 percent of the population is vaccinated,” she said.
Regarding the politicians’ statements, she said, “Diego’s teachers did their job to the best of their ability last year, especially his class teacher who gave her all. She did not miss a single lesson and had the patience to explain things to everybody, even though eight and nine-year-olds can be easily distracted.”
A teacher’s life in the pandemic
Alan Becar (28) is an English as a foreign language teacher at an elementary school in Santiago’s San Miguel district. Around 80 percent of his students come from low-income backgrounds and the closure of schools meant he couldn’t see how his students were coping. As a Type 1 diabetes patient, he has taken all the precautions to avoid exposure to the virus.
“I feel devalued. No profession should comment on another profession’s labor. No one ever says how doctors, engineers or politicians should do their job. Why are we teachers always in the spotlight with our work? We are the most criticized, yet the least supported,” he told Chile Today.
Becar is not a CPC member but sympathizes with the union. “The government has a tendency to push its responsibility on the schools and the teachers,” he said.
For those who work with poor children, the pandemic has deepened inequality and exposed the disparities in access to the internet or computers.
“We all felt more stressed and burned out than usual since the follow-up process with students and parents was more difficult than ever. There were some cases where some teachers went to a student’s house, and no one lived there. Some students just disappeared despite all of our efforts to create an online learning community,” Becar said.
The clock is ticking
President Sebastián Piñera has assured parents that the return to school will initially be on a “voluntary, gradual and flexible” basis and that conversations with all involved parties will continue.
But Becar said “the return to classes feels rushed since there haven’t been accurate guidelines that encompass all the school communities’ realities.” His school will adopt a hybrid method, halving the number of hours he and his colleagues teach every week.
“I would like people to understand that we teachers always give our all. The pandemic didn’t allow us to be with our students, but that didn’t mean that we weren’t there for them. Every morning, every night, a teacher somewhere in the world was trying to work on how they could have improved, to be our best,” Becar said.