Back to School: An Unofficial Chat with the Principal

Tomorrow, April 6th, 2021, is Back to School Day in El Salvador!

Well, officially.  

The Ministry of Education has released a statement that over half of public schools in the country are in compliance with all of the safety protocols for COVID-19 and are ready to re-open.  I visited a few Facebook pages of schools with which I am familiar and was a little surprised to see no details about the reopening of the schools.  The sites did give clear information about sanitation guidelines and masks for students.

One common safety concern which I have heard voiced by staff and parents locally and in the media has been the need to vaccinate teachers, for their own safety and the safety of the students.  In swift fashion over Holy Week, over 45,000 public school teachers were vaccinated, and this week, private school teachers are receiving their first doses. 

Parents continue to express some worry about their children getting exposed to the virus at school and bringing the virus home to elderly or high risk family members. On April 5th, La Prensa Grafica released results of a survey in which parents were asked about the reopening of schools.  56.6% of surveyed parents indicated they were happy that the government was taking steps to restart in-person education.  55.8% of parents indicated that their children would continue to study virtually as long as there was a risk of catching COVID-19. 

The Salvadoran government has definitely been pressured to open schools for in-person learning, especially since everything else in society is open.  I have heard that each school is being inspected and must pass muster in several safety categories in order to receive students.  I have also heard that many schools have not received the authorization to re-open.  I could not find a list of "ready and approved" schools anywhere, so like lots of Salvadoran students, I will learn quite a bit more after tomorrow.

This is not to say that there is no story to share before tomorrow, because, of course, there is. 

Late in March, the principal of the little school in our community came trudging up the hill just after sunrise.  We were celebrating the community's anniversary, and he was making his way to the school to organize a clean-up operation.  "You can come," he suggested,  so you can see our progress."  He looked very tired. He has aged much more than a year during this pandemic.  We chatted for a while in the street, and later in the morning, I met him in the school yard.  The principal also teaches at the school.  He and the other teachers were there, whacking at dry weeds and raking them into a burning pile. In the time we spent chatting, I was able to ask quite a few questions and learn about the opening process for this small school, a process which is similar for most  little community schools across the country.  

This school yard was covered in prickly weeds, meter-high grass and dry
leaves.  The teachers had worked for about 2 hours to get it cut and raked.

What did I learn from the Principal?

When the Ministry of Education created the re-opening plan for the schools, it sent out a 43 page inventory form, which school directors needed to print out, complete and submit. In order to re-open, the school needed to pass inspections by the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education and the Fire Department.  The school needs to ensure that it can comply with every prescribed safety requirement for the pandemic. The most pressing concern is space. In oder to have 1 meter of distance between desks in all directions, only a few students could actually be seated in each classroom.  In the community school (3 year old kindergarten to grade 6), most of the classes are large enough that students would need to be divided into groups of 5 to 6 students and could only come in person 1 or 2 days per week.  On the days when students are not there, they would be doing distance learning (as they are now). 

The kindergarten class has 24 students.  To comply with space
requirements, they can only seat students in every third chair
along the main table, and put 2 children at each trapezoid table.

Putting the desks out into the school yard in the sun, or the rain (rainy season begins in May) is not practical. I asked if bigger schools with covered recreation areas could seat students outside.  Apparently the fire department inspectors are telling schools that the covered ball court/assembly areas are not earthquake-safe, according to international standards.  Those roofs need to come down.  Schools with second floors are being told they are not built properly, so they cannot use their buildings.  (At this point, a high school parent joined our chat and said it is ridiculous - well, we were all saying it was ridiculous - but she pointed out that the recreation area roof at the local high school had withstood Hurricane Mitch as well as the 2001 earthquakes and it was not going anywhere, despite what the bomberos (firefighters) said about international standards).

So, after all the inspections, the principal had to print out and complete the 43 page form again (here he inserted a comment something like "what do they think - we have infinite paper and ink?  I have to print things for all my students and now another 43 page form?).  No wonder he looked tired.  Managing distance learning for kids in the community means he prints things and takes them to the students' homes.

1st Grade through 6th grade could use this room, it has the most
seating capacity.  Notice the shoe mat - another cleaning requirement.

The school needs to purchase hand sanitizer, ammonia to make surface spray, mops and extra bathroom supplies.  This must come out of the regular budget which they receive from the government, which is $1500 for the school for the year.  The school has 4 classrooms (with shifts of students during non-pandemic times), so less than $40 per month per classroom for all the teaching supplies and copies and now cleaning supplies.

While we were analyzing the space situation, the principal mentioned that the bathroom inspection turned up a problem.  They actually have flushing toilets now:  2 stalls for girls and 2 stalls for boys.  However, when one of the outer stall toilets is flushed, the inner toilets overflow.  They cannot open until this is repaired.

Near the end of our chat, the principal mentioned that the ashes would be added to the compost for the garden.  The school yard is pretty much dirt and dust at first glance, but around the edges there are quite a few plants, which the students tend as part of their science education.

As the trees grow, some will produce fruits for the students, and the
shade will be most welcome!!

The principal mentioned that of all of the schools in the municipality which had been inspected (over 300), that only 34 had been approved to open for in-person learning. (Remember, this is for just 1 or 2 days per week.) I cannot verify this number.  We will just have to wait and see what tomorrow brings!

The Joy of Returning to School - the theme which the 
Ministry of Education has chosen for Back to School, April 2021.
This is the cover of the 117 page guide issued to the public on the
Ministry of Education website.

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