Return to school filled with uncertainty in Mexico

A student sits alone after his in-person class started at the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn’t return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Caption
A student sits alone after his in-person class started at the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn’t return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Credit: Marco Ugarte

With bottles of gel, temperature checks and wide-open windows a new school year has begun for millions of children in Mexico

MEXICO CITY (AP) — With bottles of gel, temperature checks and wide-open windows, a new school year began Monday for millions of children in Mexico.

Officially, school is starting “in person, responsibly and orderly,” according to the Education Ministry.

In practice, it will be a system that is voluntary, diverse and hybrid between in-person learning and virtual lessons in structures some call chaotic and others gradual. Thousands of schools will open their doors after a year and half of closure, but it’s not clear how many will do so, nor how many students will show up, because beyond the federal, state and local regulations, the final decision will be made by schools and parents.

“There is complete uncertainty with respect to how it’s going to go,” said Bettina Delgadillo, director of a private school in San Pedro Garza Garcia, in Nuevo Leon, Mexico’s wealthiest municipality.

“There are schools that are better prepared and safer for children than supermarkets or establishments with open tables,” she said. “But I understand how for authorities, it’s complicated to say ‘here yes’ and ‘here no.’”

At the other end of the country in Chiapas, Mexico’s poorest state, elementary school teacher Enrique Morales was equally baffled by a different set of problems. “They haven’t cleaned a lot of schools and it’s up to the parents to chip in to buy gel and everything else,” he said.

Around Simojovel, where Morales teaches, parents still hadn’t met to decide what to do, but it was clear for him that he didn’t want to take his two kids to the classroom. Chiapas has the lowest level of COVID-19 alert in Mexico — the only green state in the country’s coded system — but he buried his father in January and a few days ago his father-in-law.

The new school year begins at a time when Mexico is in the midst of its third wave of COVID-19 infections and has recorded more than 380,000 COVID-19 confirmed deaths. About 64% of its adult population has received at least one dose of vaccine, but very few children are vaccinated.

“The return to classes doesn’t necessarily mean a greater risk for the kids who return to school nor for the community,” said Miguel Betancourt, a public health expert. But they have to follow basic hygiene, vigilance and ventilation conditions and be prepared to constantly make adjustments if necessary, according to UNICEF and the Pan American Health Organization.

In Mexico, conditions vary. In some schools children are registered with scanned QR codes and their teachers receive regular rapid tests. Others lack even running water. But educators of both kinds of schools like Delgadillo and Morales agree that while children must be protected, distance learning is not sufficient.

“We are going to do everything possible so the children come two or three days, because the other option didn’t work,” Morales, the teacher in Chiapas, said. “But the government has to clean the classrooms.”

Mexico has more than 30 million students, 25 million of those in basic education. They make up a significant portion of the 100 million children affected by school closures across Latin America during the past year and half. The region already faced existing obstacles that put many of its students behind their peers in other parts of the world. UNICEF regional advisor Vincenzo Placco warned that the pandemic will sharpen the learning crisis in the region “with long-term consequences on the development of an entire generation of students.”

Placco said schools should be the last to close and the first to reopen because they are often safer than children’s homes.

In Mexico alone, 5.2 million students did not enroll in the last semester because of issues related to the pandemic or a lack of resources, according to the country’s Interior Ministry, which also warned of increases in domestic violence and suicides among minors.

Gradual reopening and constant re-evaluation will be key. Campeche, in southeast Mexico, was the first state to bring students back to the classroom in April. But it had to stop when infections spiked. Now state education authorities say there were lessons learned: better training for teachers and parents, try to have teachers stay in the communities where they teach so there’s less mobility and dedicate Friday’s for remedial work for students who have fallen behind.

The federal government ended up quashing an idea to have parents sign a letter confirming it was their decision to send their children to school. Many considered an attempt by the government to shirk responsibility for providing safe learning environments.

Morales said in Chiapas they will ask parents to sign because teachers don’t want to be held responsible if there are infections. In Mexico City, many private schools are requiring students to bring a signed formed each day saying that the student shows no symptoms of illness.

“Everything scares you,” said Rosario Plácido, who sells quesadillas, and has a 5-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. “The illness is frightening, but he who doesn’t go, doesn’t learn.”

Students are sprayed with disinfectant as they enter the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn’t return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Caption
Students are sprayed with disinfectant as they enter the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn’t return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Students attend in-person class at the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn't return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Caption
Students attend in-person class at the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn't return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Students social distance during in-person class at the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn't return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Caption
Students social distance during in-person class at the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn't return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Students social distance during in-person class at the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn’t return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Caption
Students social distance during in-person class at the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn’t return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Students enter the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn’t return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Caption
Students enter the Republic of Argentina secondary school in Iztacalco, Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. School begins for millions of Mexican children Monday, but who sits inside a classroom, who continues studying online from home and who simply doesn’t return remains to be seen as a new school year gets underway in the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Credit: Marco Ugarte

Students are sprayed with disinfectant before entering a public school in Mexico City, before sunrise Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new school year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
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Students are sprayed with disinfectant before entering a public school in Mexico City, before sunrise Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new school year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Credit: Fernando Llano

Credit: Fernando Llano

A student wears a face shield over his Lucha Libre wrestling mask as he waits to enter a public school in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new school year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Caption
A student wears a face shield over his Lucha Libre wrestling mask as he waits to enter a public school in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new school year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Credit: Fernando Llano

Credit: Fernando Llano

A teacher gives class at a public school in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new school year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
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A teacher gives class at a public school in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new school year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Credit: Fernando Llano

Credit: Fernando Llano

Students wait in line to enter a public school as the new school year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Caption
Students wait in line to enter a public school as the new school year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Credit: Fernando Llano

Credit: Fernando Llano

Students wait inside a school bus as they arrive to school in Mexico City before sunrise Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new school year begins amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Caption
Students wait inside a school bus as they arrive to school in Mexico City before sunrise Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new school year begins amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Credit: Fernando Llano

Credit: Fernando Llano

A student gets a kiss goodbye while dropped off at school as a new school year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Caption
A student gets a kiss goodbye while dropped off at school as a new school year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Credit: Fernando Llano

Credit: Fernando Llano

The shadow of a mother dropping her son off at school is cast on the school's wall in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new academic year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Caption
The shadow of a mother dropping her son off at school is cast on the school's wall in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new academic year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Credit: Fernando Llano

Credit: Fernando Llano

A student looks outside the window during class in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new school year begins amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)
Caption
A student looks outside the window during class in Mexico City, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new school year begins amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Credit: Fernando Llano

Credit: Fernando Llano

A student takes his temperature before entering in-person class at the Industrial Technical High School Number 26 in Veracruz, Mexico, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new academic year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)
Caption
A student takes his temperature before entering in-person class at the Industrial Technical High School Number 26 in Veracruz, Mexico, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new academic year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Credit: Felix Marquez

Credit: Felix Marquez

Jose Azueta public school workers place a banner that reads in Spanish "The workers of this school are working under protest," and that warns parents that the school is not up to sanitary standards in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic in Veracruz, Mexico, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new academic year begins. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)
Caption
Jose Azueta public school workers place a banner that reads in Spanish "The workers of this school are working under protest," and that warns parents that the school is not up to sanitary standards in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic in Veracruz, Mexico, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new academic year begins. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Credit: Felix Marquez

Credit: Felix Marquez

A student wearing a mask social distances during in-person class at Jose Azueta public school in Veracruz, Mexico, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new academic year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)
Caption
A student wearing a mask social distances during in-person class at Jose Azueta public school in Veracruz, Mexico, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new academic year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Credit: Felix Marquez

Credit: Felix Marquez

Students wait to enter in-person classes at the Industrial Technical High School Number 26 in Veracruz, Mexico, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new academic year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)
Caption
Students wait to enter in-person classes at the Industrial Technical High School Number 26 in Veracruz, Mexico, Monday, Aug. 30, 2021, as a new academic year begins during the COVID-19 pandemic. (AP Photo/Felix Marquez)

Credit: Felix Marquez

Credit: Felix Marquez