Should the gov’t restart schools amid the pandemic? Here’s what you need to know

By Pedro Correa Henry

Twitter: @PCorreaHenry

Special to The Star

With Health Secretary Lorenzo González Feliciano saying recently that conversations were happening within the government about reopening schools for in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic, public and mental health experts suggested on Thursday that schools could reopen only if there were effective safety measures enforced. There’s more: social development has to be taken seriously, too.

Puerto Rico Public Health Trust (PRPHT) Executive Director José Rodríguez Orengo said the trust has recommended that the government look hard at examples of properly structured school reopenings. He added that for a reopening to be organized, it was fundamental to have a contract tracing system that works 100 percent and that molecular tests are ready in case any exposure was to happen “in such a way that we can handle this reopening adequately, in that we have all the elements ready and [the coronavirus] does not catch us off guard.”

“You can ask pediatricians in Puerto Rico and primary health educators, who are more expert than I am on the subject, according to [the most recent literature], with children who are particularly of school ages from kindergarten to third grade, it is necessary that education is carried out in a way that is a bit more structured,” Rodríguez Orengo said.

The PRPHT executive director also told the Star that other pediatric colleagues have raised concerns to him regarding K-3 students’ social development being greatly affected due to the pandemic and its subsequent lockdowns, and not knowing “what will happen in 14 years, when these students are already in high school or entering university, what pattern [of behavior] they will have, because they get less time at school in a social and structured way.”

“There may be other elements that we have not considered at the moment due to never being through this,” Rodríguez Orengo added.

Puerto Rico Psychology Association (APPR by its Spanish initials) President Kalitza Baerga, meanwhile, said it is natural for parents who have young children to show great concern as they are trying to make rational decisions during the emergency to protect their offspring. She said that on the other hand, children “can be surprising” as they are capable of adapting and following rules “through orientation and continuous repetition.” Nonetheless, she emphasized that for elementary-level students, “continuous supervision is required to keep enforcing safety measures.”

“What matters is that schools must be prepared if they are to reopen,” Baerga said. “We now know that public schools, especially in the south [of the island], are not ready to receive any children due to the earthquakes. Unfortunately, we must solve that first.”

She added that “there are many public schools that were shut down; there’s a chance to re-evaluate their reopening so they have fewer students inside the [school buildings], since it has been recommended to maintain physical distancing in classrooms and prevent crowding.”

“We must look at what other countries are doing successfully,” Baerga said.

When the Star asked if K-3 children are required to have in-person courses instead of virtual courses, the APPR president answered that young children need “structure, routines, and supervision, as virtual education is not effective for all children.”

“A few are more capable of managing the technology since they are immersed in virtual gaming, but there are risks of children being logged into technology all the time, such as their sight and concentration skills being affected,” Baerga said. “They also are not socializing with their peers, and that’s also fundamental for their growth. However, as we see that the [infection] curve has not decreased, the state is responsible for taking care of our children and not exposing others to the virus.”

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