The United Nations has alerted about a potential “generational catastrophe”. The prolonged closing of schools will have future negative repercussions for children and youth throughout the world and Puerto Rico will be no exception. It will also negatively affect the island’s future human capital stock.
This is why discussing when and how to reopen the island’s schools must acquire a sense of urgency. It is not about acting in haste, but about making the educational system a priority. The experience accumulated in other countries tells us that reopening schools goes beyond making disinfectants available or preparing checklists: it requires the continuous and active involvement of the education and health authorities, the school community, and both regional and national governments in order to keep the system working safely in the midst of the pandemic. It is a time and labor-intensive process that requires transcending bureaucratic rigidities and comfort zones.
Studies from around the world have alerted about the direct relationship between school closings and the reduction of future opportunities both for students and for society in general. A study conducted in Asian and African countries by UNICEF warned about the loss of foundational reading and math skills caused by school closings. Researchers from the University of Frankfurt in Germany and the University of Pennsylvania in the U.S. have estimated that a school closing of six months can increase the future drop-out rate by 4.1% and reduce the completion of university degrees by 2.6%. This finding has dramatic implications for Puerto Rico, where, according to the Department of Education (DE), the overall school drop-out rate reaches almost 15% and increases to 32% among eleventh-grade students.
According to other researchers, the negative effects of school closings on human capital are cumulative and are more difficult to mitigate the longer the schools are closed: a worrisome statement, if we consider that the island’s school system has suffered continuous and multiple dislocations since the 2017 hurricanes. It is important to remember that 75% of those between 5 and 17 years in the island live in poverty, according to estimates provided by the Youth Development Institute of Puerto Rico, and that education has traditionally been considered one of the main avenues for social mobility and social justice in the island. The implications are not limited to the student population and extend to society as a whole and its future economic prospects: each lost four-month school period may represent a reduction of 12.7% of future Gross Domestic Product, according to a model developed for the US by a team of academics writing for the Brookings Institute.
Even though remote online schooling has mitigated some of the damages caused by school closings, most studies agree that it does not substitute in-person learning and that, on the contrary, it increases the educational gap of low-achievers and of those belonging to disadvantaged families. Three researchers from Oxford University in England have estimated that a two-month school closing in the Netherlands – and the corresponding switch to online learning – caused the loss of an equivalent of one-fifth (1/5) of the school year in terms of quality learning. Among students belonging to families with a low educational level, the loss of learning was 55% higher. A team of researchers from the University of Münich found that digital education programs developed in Germany during the pandemic actually reduced in half the learning time among students; the reduction was even higher among low-achieving students and among boys. These findings come from countries with excellent digital learning infrastructures, something that should alert us to the magnitude of the problem in Puerto Rico where, according to the DE, over a quarter of a million students lack access to a computer or to the Internet.
No one wants to put the lives of teachers, students, or families at risk, but the lack of a vigorous public discussion in Puerto Rico about reopening the school system until now points to a suspicious lack of urgency in the DE and mistaken priorities in the island’s public apparatus. In Europe, reopening schools became a priority in September 2020 and the topic has been the subject of intense public scrutiny ever since. Autonomous communities, regions, and districts – the equivalent of Puerto Rico’s municipalities – have pressured national governments to assign more resources in order to make school reopenings viable and safe. In Germany, for example, the länders or regions have jurisdiction over the educational system. They demanded the reopening of schools for in-presence learning several weeks after the central government decided to close schools in December 2020 as a precautionary measure to contain an increase in COVID cases.
This demand was raised even though the German government had made a multi-million investment in strengthening digital educational infrastructures in the länders. France has maintained its schools open during the second and third waves of the pandemic, implanting strict health protocols which have evolved with the epidemic. After detecting the presence of the British COVID variant in the country, France opted for increasing and performing massive COVID testing in schools – a million tests a month – considering the closing of schools only as a last resort measure.
Spain has also kept its schools open during the second and third waves of the pandemic, increasing school staff with 40,000 additional teachers and auxiliaries in order to accommodate smaller student groups and staggered hours. Sixteen of the country’s 17 autonomous communities – the equivalent of Puerto Rico’s “municipios” – have also implemented aggressive testing programs in classrooms (the exception is Madrid, which currently leads in contagions due to its “laissez faire” attitude). At the beginning of 2021, Spain has reported the closing of only 32 schools in the whole country, 0.11% of the total.
School reopenings have not been exempt from controversies; the result, however, has been a lack of social complacency and a lively public discussion with schools at the forefront. Both in France and Spain, unions have occasionally demanded the closing of classrooms or stronger safety measures in schools. In Spain, for example, unions brought public attention to the need of hiring school nurses to attend to the vigilance and control of COVID cases in schools: Madrid hired 700 of these. Unions are now calling attention to the need to step up epidemiological protocols and vaccinating school nurses.
The European Center for Disease Control (ECDC) – the European version of the US’ CDC – has stated that schools do not present a larger epidemiological risk than other potentially contagious social environments, such as work or leisure settings. The agency considers that measures to open schools should go hand in hand with others implemented in community settings. A recently published study by the medical journal The Lancet concluded that school reopenings should be accompanied by epidemiological measures outside the school environment, such as massive testing, contact tracing, and isolation of positive cases in the community at large.
What specific protocols have been implanted in schools? UNICEF identifies three key conditions that need to be present in order to safely reopen schools:
- Physical safety, including hygiene conditions;
- Availability of school staff, which in general, needs to be reinforced; and
- Institutional capacity to implement changes and take remedial actions as epidemiological conditions evolve both in the school and the community.
Europe has used a wide variety of school protocols but in general, they share three common elements, according to a policy review published by a group of researchers of the University of Turin in Italy:
- Physical aspects –making thermometers, face masks, gels, and disinfecting materials available; redesigning classrooms to ensure physical distancing and signaling routes to reduce interaction among students; assigning seats and materials in order to minimize contact.
- Logistical aspects – reducing the number of students per classroom, staggering itineraries, and developing “classroom bubbles” that avoid having children circulate the school and have instead teachers entering and exiting the different groups. Continuous disinfection and ventilation of classrooms and common areas are of particular importance: for example, it is recommended that rooms be ventilated every hour (in Spain windows were opened even during wintertime), that CO2 meters be installed to monitor air quality and that air conditioning systems be cleaned and disinfected (some do not recommend their use during the pandemic).
- Epidemiological aspects – designating an area to be utilized as an isolation room for symptomatic students or staff and creating a protocol for managing these cases. Close coordination with health authorities is particularly important, as it is key for schools to have the capacity to quickly implement isolation protocols, identify contacts, perform testing and impose quarantines in case a positive case is detected in the school.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has correctly stated that reopening schools in the midst of a pandemic must be considered a continuous and dynamic labor-intensive process; that is, it involves much more than preparing a checklist. Reopening schools requires the institutional capacity to monitor conditions, modify protocols, incorporate learnings, and having the flexibility to open and close classrooms as the situation changes. More importantly, the process requires ongoing coordination and close integration between the school community, education and health departments, and local and national governments.