More than 10,000 students in San Juan Province will become the first in Argentina to return to face-to-face classes on Monday, providing a rare bright spot in the gloom of the coronavirus pandemic.
Children and teenagers from 14 regions in the province will return to schools with a “bimodal” system, “bubble” classrooms and a sanitary kit supplied for each student, with time with teachers complementing and enhancing homework and remote lessons online.
Officials in the province, led by Governor Sergio Uñac, say that the spread of the coronavirus in the central-western region is "under control.” San Juan recorded only one case in the last Health Ministry update and only 23 individuals have tested positive for Covid-19 since the pandemic began.
"The distribution [of students] in classrooms is the ‘bubble’ model or through [social] distancing and with furniture inside the classroom," Education Minister Felipe de los Ríos said over the weekend during an interview with a local radio station.
"The students of the last year of primary, secondary, technical and agrotechnical education will return to classes, but there will be no more than 15 students per classroom," said the San Juan official.
The 'bubble' method refers to classroom organisation, in which some seats are left empty to distance students from each other and their teachers.
“We are going to have schools where the enrolment will be 10 students and during recess service personnel will clean and ventilate, so that they [the students] can enter the classroom again. They are not going to wander around inside the educational building.” said De los Ríos
"In the interior of the province where they have few students, they will go every day and in those [places] that are more numerous, one group will go to classes one week and another will do it with guides at home and the following week the assignment of shifts will be reversed," he explained.
Under the health protocol outlined by the provincial government, all students, teachers and non-teaching staff entering educational institutions must enter wearing face masks.
On the first day of the return to classrooms, all students will be given a vegetable cloth bag containing alcohol hand-sanitising gel, a face mask, liquid soap and a personal towell. Teachers will be given a disinfected face shield to complement their face mask, which must be returned at the end of each school day for cleaning.
De los Ríos said that the return to classrooms would be carried out in an “orderly” manner and that parents were not obliged to send their children back to school, saying their wishes would be respected and that attendance was “optional.”
The return to face-to-face teaching will be closely watched by provinces throughout Argentina, many of whom are eager to re-open schools and adopt the “bubble” protocol. However, health experts have expressed concerns over the presence of several people in enclosed spaces, which is why schools in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (AMBA) are unlikely to re-open their doors anytime soon.
The next province in line to resume classes is Catamarca, with a potential return due August 18. Officials will begin working on protocols this week. Santiago del Estero, which was also set to authorise face-to-face teaching has decided to postpone such a move for at least 30 days, after recording a surge in cases over the weekend.
Confirmation that San Juan would restart classes was granted last week after talks between Governor Uñac and the national Education Minister Nicolás Trotta, who has warned that those in and around the capital will not be doing the same anytime soon.
“I say that until there is a decrease in the level of circulation, until we are in phase 5, classes will not return in the [Buenos Aires] metropolitan area,” Trotta said in a recent interview.
"We assume the challenge of the physical return to school with great responsibility. We are aware of the enormous importance of this step that we are taking after almost five months of the suspension of face-to-face classes,” he added.
“We will closely monitor the situation, addressing the complex situation that we must go through and knowing that we will not hesitate to return to the non-face-to-face class scheme if the epidemiological situation forces us to do so," said Trotta.