SANTIAGO – On Aug. 18, the education minister said that if schools could be used to vote for the referendum, then students should be able to go back to class. Teachers and medical organizations disagree. The debate over reopening schools has flared up once again.
On Monday, Aug. 18, during a Congressional session on the referendum process, Education Minister Raúl Figueroa once again suggested that schools be reopened: “[I]f schools are in conditions to be used as places to vote, I legitimately ask myself, why can’t we open them so that students can benefit themselves from these protective spaces?”
In a press conference, Health Minister Enrique Paris said that “there is no relation between the use of educational establishments as polling places for the referendum and resuming classes.” He pointed out that schools have traditionally been used for voting because of their size.
Despite this, the Health Ministry has recently announced that schools will be allowed to reopen in districts entering the fourth phase of the government’s Paso a Paso (Step by Step) plan. Medical specialists and teacher organizations remain strongly against reopening any schools.
Mario Aguilar: “The Government Wants to Take a Step Back”
Chile Today spoke with Mario Aguilar, president of the Teachers’ College. He said that health conditions were not suitable for reopening schools. The basic health conditions are far from being met, he said, which include infrastructure changes to limit the number of students per classroom to 15-20, and the need to improve the quality and quantity of bathrooms. He added that “there is a lack of resources to make such changes.”
“It would be reasonable for the Education Ministry and the authorities to accept that the conditions will not be achieved this year, and start working to have them in 2021,” Aguilar said. He proposed that, instead, the government prioritize supporting students who lack a good internet connection, so that they can better attend virtual classes.
The Teachers’ College has proposed the creation of a work team that includes “everyone”, from “sanitary specialists, the Health Ministry, epidemiologists, [and] experts,” to those in “the educational world,” such as teachers and students. Aguilar said authorities have refused, adding, “This is a government that is characterized by listening very little and not having good communication with the social world.”
Regarding Figueroa’s musings about reopening, Aguilar said they are “quite inexplicable, considering there is clear opposition from the education communities.” He added the only reasonable explanation is that Figueroa is just receiving instructions from his “direct boss,” President Sebastián Piñera. “It is just a hypothesis, but it could explain the minister’s insistence despite the fact he is being told from everywhere that nobody agrees with him.”
Aguilar said that the most important thing right now is to survive the pandemic, “only then can we start to recover in economic and educational matters.” Aguilar added it is “absurd” that after many months of quarantine and other strict measures to take care of our health, the government wants to take a step back. “It would mean everything was a lie,” he said.
He vowed that the Teachers’ College would not allow it. “For us, the first, fundamental and most sacred priority is life. To be able to exercise your right to education and go to school, you first have to be alive,” he said.
Opening Schools to Soon Could Spread Covid-19 Even Faster
On Aug. 19, Dr. Catalina González, a public health expert from Valparaíso University, revealed the results of a study on the impact of going back to in-person classes. It was based on the analysis of extensive national evidence, including the Health Ministry’s epidemiological data and the Health Statistics and Information Department reports. The study showed that in Chile, from March to Jul. 23, almost 30,000 children and teenagers were diagnosed with Covid-19, and 51 died due to the virus.
These results were compared to information from Italy, Great Britain, the United States, and China, among others. In an interview with the Teachers’ College, González explained a mathematical model from Spain’s University of Granada, which showed that on the first day of reopening schools each student would interact with 74 people, and on the second they would be exposed to 808 individuals.
Another case analyzed by the specialist was the reopening of a high school in France, where almost 41 percent of the students and staff became infected. González also referred to a report from Wuhan, China, which showed that only 42 percent of students followed the instructions to wash their hands, and just over 50 percent complied with the mandatory use of face-masks.
According to The Guardian, European countries that reopened schools have experienced significant jumps in Covid-19 cases. Barely two weeks after schools in Berlin reopened, 41 of them had reported coronavirus cases, but some critics say it was due to relaxed measures. Spain registered 66,905 infections in the past two weeks, the continent’s highest 14-day infection rate, as seen in the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control data.
Other studies differ significantly. Some academics argue that in the Nordic European countries reopening schools has not increased Covid-19 cases and that educational establishments are no longer hot-spots. This research compared Sweden and Finland infection data and suggests that keeping schools open during the pandemic may not have had much impact on contagion rates.
Despite this, researchers warn that the results of reopening schools will depend on the country’s background. The World Economic Forum, based on a study published in the National Bureau of Economic Research, says going back to in-person classes too early could spread Covid-19 even faster, especially in the developing countries.
A High Risk of Dropouts
According to the survey carried out by the Telecommunications Subsecretariat in 2017, internet access in Chile increased from a little over 60 percent to more than 87 percent in five years, meaning nine out of 10 had access to the internet. A success, some would say, except for the fact that the distribution of the results shows great inequality between social classes.
Whereas 75 percent of the highest income households (ABC1) have access to fixed paid internet, and 46 percent of the middle class (C2C3) also enjoy this benefit, in the lowest socioeconomic groups (DE) internet access drops to just 24 percent.
According to the University of Chile’s professionals, this gap is a real challenge for online learning; moreover, as of April, the Social Development Ministry reported that 632 localities, spread across 170 districts, still did not have access to the internet.
Even though the government has applied several measures to ensure access to all students, such as the Plan Solidario de Conectividad (Connectivity Solidarity Plan), there are still many children and teenagers from rural areas of Chile who are not able to access online education.
The Education Ministry has warned that there is a high risk of school dropouts due to the pandemic. They explained that educational abandonment “is closely related to the high vulnerability rates,” but did not refer to the digital gap.
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“On-site Classes Will not be Resumed”
Izkia Siches, president of Chile’s Medical College (Colmed), also criticized the political management of the Education Ministry, which has not been able to “align all the actors involved” in the process of reopening schools. Regarding the Health Ministry’s recent announcements, Siches told Radio Duna: “We have proposed that the reopening of schools should be done in the fifth phase.”
Many districts have already announced their schools will not reopen this year. “Obviously, on-site classes will not be resumed,” said Kathy Barriga, Maipu’s mayor. “I cannot imagine who could think differently if no country in the world has managed to effectively go back to classes,” she added in an interview with La Tercera. Evelyn Matthei, Providencia’s mayor, thinks the same. “It is practically impossible to reopen schools,” she told CNN Chile.
Aguilar thinks the municipalities have played an important role during the pandemic. “They are much more connected to reality than the government, they have direct contact with the citizens,” he told Chile Today. He pointed out that the mayors were the first to listen to the teachers’ request to close schools in March, while the government kept rejecting their suggestions.