Back-to-School in Nicaragua Amid Covid-19 Resurgence

The government refuses to suspend in-person classes, despite the renewed advance of the pandemic. Photo: Nayira Valenzuela / Confidencial

School principal: The government isn’t helping “to spread awareness”. Nor are they providing “logistical help” to avoid the spread of COVID-19 in the elementary and high schools.

By Yader Luna (Confidencial)

HAVANA TIMES – “If I send my son to school, can you guarantee that he won’t get COVID-19?” This was the question a mother posed to “Laura”, principal of a small public school in San Marcos, Carazo. There are 600 students under “Laura’s” administration. The question the mother raised echoes from a number of parents in past few days. “I can’t guarantee it, but we’ll try to avoid it every way possible,” she responds.

“Laura” spoke with Confidencial on condition of anonymity. She stated that she and the teachers have tried to take all the measures doctors have recommended. “But it’s hard, because the classrooms are small. There are moments when the students are crowded together,” she admitted.

The government, she said, hasn’t helped them to “be aware”. Nor has it offered “any kind of logistical help” to avoid contagion. “There’s no official record of infections in this school. However, it’s not something that I could 100% guarantee,” she explained. She added, however, that in 2020, there were “considerable” school absences.

Preparing to return to class

On February first, the new school year will be inaugurated in Nicaragua, according to government announcements. Many students missed school last year due to the pandemic. Now, there’s fear of a second wave of COVID-19 infections in the country. Nonetheless, 1.77 million students have registered this year at the national level, according to the Ministry of Education.

Salvador Vanegas serves as presidential advisor on education. He announced recently that the Ministry of Education is preparing to implement “a model of health education” this year. He didn’t offer any further details.

“We’re working intensely on all the conditions needed to assure a good beginning for the school year. We’ll continue promoting quality education, a synonym for human quality,” Vanegas declared.

Miriam Raudez, Minister of Education, offered a few additional details on television. She asserted that the 10,000 schools in the country are ready to “continue strengthening the area of health education.”

“It’s fundamental that our families trust us. That when we open the educational centers, they know we’re guaranteeing all due protocols for protection and prevention. Not only of Covid, but of any type of illness,” Raudez manifested.

“A big lie”

“Johana” [also an assumed name] teaches Spanish in a public school in Jinotepe, in the department of Carazo. Her fear of infection “is still very much alive”. Moreover, her concerns increase because she sees that “the government is lying. There are no preparations to confront the Covid-19 pandemic in the schools.”

A week ago, “Johana” went to Managua to participate in the teacher training sessions. Now, they’re preparing the groundwork at the departmental level. “Then there’ll be workshops at the municipal level. But up until now, they haven’t said anything about protective measures. They talk about the in-person classes, like nothing was going on here,” she stated.

The only thing they’ve mentioned is the use of face masks and hand sanitizer. “But that’s not all you need to prepare,” the teacher noted with concern.

Lacking safety protocols, uncertainty reigns. That’s the opinion of Lesbia Rodriguez, a teacher belonging to the Unidad Sindical Magisterial, an independent teacher’s union. Rodriguez recalled that in 2020, teachers had to assume the cost of their own face masks and hand sanitizer. If they wanted to protect themselves from the Coronavirus, it had to come out of their own pockets. The Ministry of Education “doesn’t give out anything”.

“The fear is still there”

Lyla Jarquin has January 25th marked on her calendar. On that day, her son Thiago will begin preschool in the “Central American School”. A few weeks ago, the school shared their “biosecurity protocol for the return to in-person classes”.

Under the hybrid model they’ll be applying, her son will attend school only two days a week. “He’ll attend with half of his classmates, while the other half has in-home activities. On Wednesdays, “the whole class will receive classes online.”

“I’m anxious for my child to begin this new stage in his life, hoping he can get a lot from it, And also that the preventive measures don’t limit his education. I trust that the biosecurity plan the school is implementing will be effective. I hope no student, teacher or administrator gets exposed to the virus.”

Educational challenges

Melba Castillo of the Multidisciplinary Scientific Committee has a doctorate in education. She highlighted that the educational system in Nicaragua is complex. While some private schools are taking protective measures, other public rural schools don’t even have access to water, much less the internet.

“Nicaragua is the only country in Latin America that never closed the schools. However, many parents decided not to send their children. That produced a complicated situation. They say that at one point absenteeism reached over 60%,” Castillo explained in a videoconference.

Castillo is clear that “in many cases, there were lapses in the children’s learning”. Nonetheless, the government ordered their promotion.

“Many educators are demanding in-person classes. Many other countries experienced a loss of learning. Not all children have stable internet connection. Not all of them have the capacity to follow through with their classes.”

Melba Castillo affirmed that there are students “for whom contact with the teacher and other students is what amplifies their learning.” “In on-line learning, there’s no socialization or opportunities to consult the teacher directly,” she believes.

A much needed plan

To Dr. Josefina Bonilla, a public health specialist, Nicaragua is “full of inequalities. There are diverse realities”, in both the public and the private schools. But it’s clear that different modalities of in-person learning will be the reality for 2021.

“We understand that returning to school can be useful. In school, some children can better understand why the Coronavirus has had such a great effect. (…) Some children are better off in school, where their nutritional needs are fulfilled (by the school snacks). But the conditions must be weighed – access to water, the number of teachers, the safety measures,” Bonilla specified. She is also a member of the Multidisciplinary Scientific Committee.

Both Melba Castillo and Josefina Bonilla stressed that a series of measures should be taken in the schools. These include social distancing, staggered entrance hours, permanent use of masks, frequent handwashing, and cleaning of all surfaces. There must also be vigilance to detect any signs and symptoms of physical or psychological illnesses. There must be measures to manage the child or teacher who develops signs of illness.

“We have to impede any contagion from the virus. Authorities must react if there are rumors of contagion in the community, or children aren’t coming because they’re sick. They must be prepared to implement a plan for the partial or total closure of the classrooms. Such a plan would be put in place if the national or local conditions made it necessary,” Dr. Bonilla explained.

Being aware of reality

Dr. Leonel Arguello added that the most important thing is awareness. People should know that “we’re in a second wave (of Covid infections). There are greater possibilities of catching the virus.” Arguello feels that the Ministry of Health, first and foremost, should be reporting the real status of contagion. That way, it would be possible to “identify the level of alert and take the corresponding measures.”

Bonilla advised families to prepare their children, so that they obey all the security measures. “The principal responsibility for child-raising lies in the home. School reinforces it. The children should be prepared emotionally. They should be taught how to wear their masks, to bring hand sanitizer, and how to be good classmates.”

Read more from Nicaragua here on Havana Times.


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