In Mexico, a necessary but perilous return to school

Under her plastic bunny ears, Melissa tastes her chopped papaya. Her mother, Verónica Bolaños, a trader is busy. It is 9 am at the Granada market in Mexico City and not all fruit and vegetable or meat stalls have reopened. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected the economy and health restrictions are still in place. “A year and a half since Melissa no longer goes to kindergarten, his mom blows. I have to take her to the stand with me. I do not have a choice “.

An education undermined, an atrophied economy

In Mexico, 37 million students have been dropped out of school because of the pandemic. They spent 18 months following the lessons on the computer – when they have one – or on television. Often, it is the big brother who helps, or the parents who take them to their workplace. In 2020-2021, the back shops were transformed into a study room with improvised classes amid the din of the fruit and vegetable markets. Difficult to concentrate in these conditions on the Pythagorean theorem.

Today, it’s finally back to school in a heavy context. The coronavirus has officially killed 260,000 (probably double) and the country is facing a third wave. But sending children back to school also means reactivating the economy by allowing parents to return to work, when most of them work an average of 69 hours a week and they cannot improvise themselves as teachers. “Face-to-face school is good for everyone’s health, it’s a question of psychological health”, insisted Delfina Gómez, Minister of Education.

A fuzzy strategy

“This pandemic has been terrible for the emotional development of young people, notes Fernando Cabrera, representative of Unicef ​​in Mexico. And educational bases have been lost ”. Students from the public sector and rural areas have lagged behind those from wealthy backgrounds, according to Miguel Székely, director of the Center for Educational and Social Studies. ” Not all children were equipped with tablets or PCs to study at home. With this stopping of classes, there is a risk of losing a generation of students ”. « Back to school is necessary, insists Arcelia Martinez, director of the Phare educational observatory. We are leaving a year of virtual education. The question is therefore not whether to reopen the establishments, but rather under what conditions ”.

System D prevails

The ministry has published a health plan, promised regulated communication and a Covid-19 detection system, but concrete measures are unclear. “We’re not ready. The government could have invested in fans, changed the bay windows into windows that open to ventilate… ”, Arcelia Martinez sighs. “Instead of having used these 18 months to train teachers in the new reality, everything is done in an improvised way”, juge Miguel Székely.

The teachers have received a 61-page back-to-school guide – which has constantly changed – “But it is not clear”, Laura groans, teacher. There are not even instructions on the maximum number of children per room. In his establishment, there will be two groups per room which will alternate each week at college level. In primary, the week will be divided in two with Friday for tutoring.

“Mexicans first”, a public policy body has set up a “risk index”, which recommends a phased return depending on the characteristics of the building and new cases of Covid-19 in the town. “But each school will do what it can”, launches Laura. System D prevails in a country where teachers earn little more than 350 € per month.

The risk of dropping out of school

And then there are the children who are late and those who may have been let go for good. In 2020-2021, 3 million students from kindergarten to high school missed school enrollment, according to the National Institute of Statistics. “The question is not whether there will be outbreaks of contagion, but rather how to manage them”, warns Fernando Cabrera of Unicef. Verónica hesitates, what if Melissa gets sick? “My daughter knows the barrier gestures, but hey… I’m not even sure that all parents will send their children at the start of the school year”. Absenteeism is likely to be high. One thing is certain, according to the Minister of Education, the majority of schoolchildren (70%) are eager to find their little friends.

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