Partnering During A Pandemic: Back to School, Sort Of

After more than a year of completely shuttered classrooms and parents facilitating their children's education at home, the Salvadoran Ministry of Education has announced that schools will begin to re-open after the Holy Week holidays.

Ministry of Education Graphic posted on social media
Return to classes + April 6, 2021
Optional:  If the parent in the family decides that the child should stay home, they can do that.
It is not obligatory to send them.
Semi-in-Person:  The students will be present on [specified] days in order to maintain
social distancing in the classrooms.
Mult-modal:  Classes continue in Google Classroom, with guides, television and radio.
Gradual:  This is a process to care for ourselves.  Not all students should be present on April 6th.

What will the re-opening of schools look like?

The Salvadoran government has established detailed criteria under which the schools may open.  It is likely that not all schools will be ready to open on April 6th, especially some of the large high schools in which social distancing is impossible to imagine.  Many, if not most, public schools were already using split shifts in order to accommodate an overabundance of students. Schools with covered, concrete ball courts will have the capacity to seat students outdoors. 

The government has been clear that students can expect to go to class in person 2 days per week.  Universities may be offering more of a full schedule to their students.

What are a small sample of students and parents saying?

Over the past few weeks, I have been talking with parents and kids one on one about the possibility of schools resuming in-person classes. All of the parents I talked with who have young children tell me they will send their children to in-person classes.  They say the children are bored with learning at home, and the parents are honest about having a hard time keeping up with being full-time teachers. Elementary school children tell me they are eager to go back to school to be in classes and to be with their friends.  Some of them say it is hard to learn at home because the teacher does not really teach, and they have to figure things out for themselves with the guides (workbooks). They also complain because their phones are so bad that the teachers tell them they can't see the work well enough to grade it.

Home classroom - photo submitted by the mom

Among the middle and high school students, opinions are more varied.  One girl told me she will not go in person because she is doing much better at home where her grandma is teaching her.  A few parents said that their children need to learn in the presence of other children because the students often work in groups and help each other.  (This is especially important to parents who can't read or understand their children's assignments.)  A few teen boys will not go in person because it is safer for them not to ride the bus and not to be outside due to gang activities.  One family expressed concern that their son might carry the virus home to his grandparents who both have heath problems which increase their risk of dying from COVID-19, so they are undecided.  The high school students are generally skeptical about school actually re-opening.  University students are very, very eager to be back to in-person classes, and many started in-person practicums and social service hours in January.

All of the parents and many of the kids say it is super important for the students and teachers to keep their masks on and follow all of the sanitizing rules. 

What's the buzz on social media?

Comments on the Ministry of Education's Facebook page and on Twitter are mixed.  Many believe that teachers should be vaccinated before schools open.  They fear a rapid increase in community spread because there is no possible way that social distancing can be enforced in tiny, overcrowded classrooms.  Others point out that sporting events, restaurants, markets and basically all sectors of society have re-opened except for the schools.  Critics of the extended closure note that the economic and stress burdens fall more heavily on families living in poverty, especially on single mothers.  The technology divide between wealthy and poor communities has limited the access many struggling families have had to educational resources during the pandemic.

What is meant by multi-modal format and what's with the helicopters?

Did you know that classes are offered on the radio, and on TV in addition to the workbook guides which are sent out to students' and parents' cell phones?  When schools closed in March of 2020, suddenly parents were flung into the roles of teachers.  Within a few months, the Ministry of Education provided support to whatever local schools were able to do by producing radio and TV classes according to a regular schedule.  This was especially helpful (and still is) to parents in rural areas where cell signals were not initially strong enough for students to receive schoolwork via WhatsApp, much less log into Google Classroom.  Over the past year, cell coverage has greatly increased so that everybody can pretty much get a 2G signal (if they can pay for it).  Photocopying the guidebooks is still a struggle for many families.

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Language themes - Wednesday March 17th on Channel 10

One week before the recent elections (February 28), the government announced that every student would receive a free laptop computer and free internet.  Helicopters could be observed crossing the skies, purportedly delivering the first batch of computers to 150,000 students.  Indeed, the Ministry of Education has posted some very staged photos of happy students with their laptops. I have to say that I do not know personally of any student who received a laptop.  Many communities are posting comments under the photographs with statements like "no computers here" or "keep going until you get to every community."

Photo: Ministry of Education

Photo: Ministry of Education

Photo: Ministry of Education

Of course, if every student in the country is able to receive a laptop computer and have free internet, that would be amazing!! If every high school student could receive a computer, that would be a very excellent start.  Closing up the technology gap between wealthy families and struggling families is a very admirable goal.  Of course, many do say it would have been much better to give out computers at the start of the pandemic, but in El Salvador, big actions usually happen just prior to elections.


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