In a controversial decision that is already being rejected by the mayors of two of Ecuador’s largest cities, the National Emergency Operations Committee (COE) reported this week that it has approved a pilot plan for the voluntary return to classrooms in a single school in Guayaquil.According to the COE, the pilot will start September 1, 2020.
María Paula Romo, the Minister of Government, announced that the proposal has been made official and that it will take place at the Alemán Humboldt school in Guayaquil (a private German school), located in the Los Ceibos sector.
The minister made a tour of the school this week with the Minister of Health, Juan Carlos Zevallos. They ostensibly made the visit to verify the implementation of biosecurity standards to minimize the risk of contagion of COVID-19. The Ministers were joined by the school’s rector, Andreas Gersong, and the Honorary Consul of Germany, María Gloria Alarcón Alcívar.
Speaking to the media, the Romo explained that the plan will be to measure a gradual return to classes, both in the public and private sectors. She also claimed that this will be carried out with a priority on the health of students, teachers, and administrative personnel.
Romo said that attending classes will be voluntary, recognizing that there will be families who do not want to send their children to educational establishments. She added that within the prevention measures, there will be no places where students will be required to get together in large groups. For example, the cafeteria will be closed, and children will have to bring their snacks from home. Students are also scheduled to go to recess at different times.
In addition, in the first few weeks, children will have to go to classes only one day a week.
Debate of opening classrooms continues
Even as countries around the world try to implement plans like this, there continues to be enormous debate around how safe the idea is.
While the research so far suggests that children are not at a high risk of getting severe COVID-19, there are still several risks.
Increasing data has suggested that children who get COVID-19, typically have mild symptoms. In most cases, they also don’t seem to get infected at rates as high as those of adults.
But the New York Times recently pointed out that many of the studies showing that children are not major spreaders of COVID-19 use data collected in countries in lockdown, or where strict prevention measures are in place.
Since data shows children can get COVID-19, and they can spread it (even if it’s less likely), there is a risk of children transmitting the virus to school employees or bringing it home and spreading it to family members.
There are lots of precautions that can be put into place to try and avoid the spread, like keeping students in small groups, avoiding activities like field trips, and using strict distancing and cleaning measures.
But teachers have voiced concern about their personal safety, and that of the risk of continued spread if schools open. The reopening of schools requires adults to congregate. And that puts teachers and school staff at risk. In the US—in an Arizona school district—three teachers conducting virtual learning in a shared room caught and spread COVID-19, and one of the teachers died.
In an even more alarming picture of the situation, Israel reopened schools on May 17th, and since then there have been at least 1,335 students and 691 staff who have become infected.These infections are now being blamed for a surge of cases in the country.
But this surge in Israel is an outlier to what has been seen in Europe. In fact, 22 European countries have reopened schools without the same spike in cases. So why the difference?
Apparently, schools in places like the Netherlands and Denmark imposed very strict physical distancing measures among their students. Israel, on the other hand, had stopped imposing physical distancing by mid-May, and when classes returned, they returned to full size.
Even so, experts say it’s hard to know whether the spread of cases in Israel is due to schools reopening, or if it’s due to the economy reopening generally, and more lax regulations overall.
Cuenca reacts to the plan
On a local level, the Cuenca Emergency Operations Committee (COE) met last Friday and decided that there would not be any similar type of pilot schooling in the city; nor will classes be reactivated in the immediate future. It also decided to keep Azuay under Yellow traffic light restrictions at least until August 30, 2020.
According to the Cuenca’s Mayor, Pedro Palacios, the decision to not give way to face-to-face classroom instruction was made based on an assessment of the city’s citizens desires, prevalence of the coronavirus and because education in its non-face-to-face modalities is being prioritized.
“Cuenca families have had to face an unprecedented vacation period, in which far from offering their children with the usual recreation, they found themselves committed to complying with care and prevention measures for their loved ones in a responsible and unrestricted manner,” said Palacios.
He added that the numbers of new COVID-19 cases, people being hospitalized in intermediate care and intensive care units, and the number of deaths all continue to rise. According to figures from the Ministry of Health, since the start of the pandemic in March, 3,765 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Cuenca, of which 3,026 have recovered. There are currently 76 patients in critical condition; 195 people have died from the virus.
Palacios said that, although the increases continue, the COE decided to continue in yellow because there is an offer from the Ministry of Health to increase the number of ventilators in the José Carrasco Arteaga (IESS) and Vicente Corral Moscoso Regional hospitals.
Guayaquil mayor rejects National COE pilot
Cynthia Viteri, the Mayor of Guayaquil, says that face-to-face classes are suspended for the remainder of the 2020-2021 school year for student safety.
“In Guayaquil there will be no pilot plan or face-to-face plan or short- or medium-term plan this school year. There will be no face-to-face classes, we cannot risk our children and young people when we are just taking over the reins of COVID-19 in this city.”
As the situation plays out at the private Alemán Humboldt school in Guayaquil, the rest of Ecuador will be watching closely to see what happens when a national plan runs into local push back from city leaders.
For the time being, both Cuenca and Guayaquil have suspended classes for the remainder of the year and plan to continue with distance learning programs.