A dozen secondary schools re-opened their doors in the capital on Tuesday, with teachers hosting the first face-to-face classes in Buenos Aires City for seven months.
Schools and institutions have been shuttered since mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic, when restrictions were first imposed to tackle the spread of Covid-19 in Argentina. All classes have been carried out remotely in the meantime, with Zoom and Google Hangouts now a regular part of every student’s life.
Following the relaxation of some quarantine restrictions in the capital, announced by President Alberto Fernández and City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta last Friday, City Hall has now authorised the return of students in their final years of secondary school. Children in their last year of primary school will follow next week in a gradual return to face-to-face classes.
"It was quite nice. Seeing a blackboard, seeing a teacher and not a screen, having them explain, writing things. It's weird but it's like going back to real life," said Lola Pérez Costa, an 18-year-old student who is due to finish schooling this year.
At the end of this first day of teaching at the Escuela Técnica Nº 27 Hipólito Yrigoyen – an establishment attended by Pope Francis decades ago when he was a youngster known as Jorge Bergolio – the school’s director Oscar Lazbal said he was satisfied with how everything had gone.
"I am very happy. The school is essentially presence. Not only in pedagogical terms but in emotional terms. Having them back here, we are all happy," Lazbal said, speaking at the school in the lower middle-class neighbourhood of Monte Cristo.
Classes are currently being held in open courtyards, with group of 10 people utilising the so-called "bubble system," in which contact with other groups is avoided. That means that if a student is diagnosed with Covid-19, it does not spread beyond that group.
In privately run schools, which account for around 50 percent of students in the capital, re-opening remains at the discretion of directors, though compliance with government protocols is mandatory.
"Between state and private school management, 70,000 boys and girls are going to be able to attend face-to-face classes that will complement the virtual spaces," said Buenos Aires City Education Minister Soledad Acuña on Tuesday.
Remote classes will continue, but "we are going to take advantage of these spaces so that, with protocols that guarantee safety, the kids can see their peers again," Acuña added.
"This is a very important step, reincorporating school to close a key stage in their educational life," said Deputy Mayor Diego Santilli.
Though many parents will welcome the news that children can now return to schools, prominent teachers unions expressed happiness at the move.
Some argue that, rather than face-to-face classes, the more urgent issue is providing Internet connections and computers to students who live in poor areas, given that many have been unable to maintain their ties with institutions during the pandemic. Others have said that potential exposure to the virus is a health risk for education professionals.
The Ademys teachers union called a two-day strike starting Tuesday, saying that “as long as there is community circulation of the virus, we will not return to face-to-face schooling or any type of face-to-face activity."
The return to classes in the capital has been made possible by the relaxation of quarantine measures in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (AMBA), where almost a third of the population lives.
The number of new infections has declined in the capital, though still averages around 900 a day.
Face-to-face classes have already resumed in some inland provinces, though some districts have had to backtrack on measures amid an increase in coronavirus cases outside the AMBA region.
To date, Argentina has recorded more than 900,000 infections, with more than 24,000 deaths.