Parents on both sides of the controversial issue weigh in, as the government is challenged to offer solutions that allow parents to work from home.
After Health Secretary Carlos Mellado announced Thursday that all public and private schools in Puerto Rico would close for two weeks due to a recent surge in COVID-19 cases, some health experts, teachers, and parents praised the government’s decision.
Others, however, opposed the move, which comes approximately a month after roughly 100 of the island’s 858 public schools were authorized to reopen after closing during the pandemic. To counter this action, frustrated parents congregated Saturday in La Fortaleza, in front of the governor’s mansion, to protest the closures.
“This is tragic for our kids,” lawyer Natalia Colosia, the mother of a 6-year-old, told Floricua. She worries for their emotional and psychological stability in the midst of the sudden change. “They were starting to get acclimated after a year away from their classrooms, their teachers, and their schoolmates.”
Colosia said that this situation is difficult not only for the children, but also for the parents, who must rush to make new adjustments as children are sent back home. “I can bring my child to my office, but not every parent has that advantage,” she said. She added that children from lower-income backgrounds, who don’t have access to the internet, are affected academically.
Beatriz García, a stay-at-home mother of two elementary school children and one of the organizers of the protest, argues that every school has had to comply with the health department’s safety protocol. Therefore, “if the school could open with that protocol, and continues following it, we are not worried about contagion in that [particular] school,” she told Floricua, adding that “parents who do not feel comfortable sending their children to school, can keep them in virtual classes.”
Both García and Colosia express concerns about their children’s emotional and psychological wellbeing, as well as their academic achievements. Colosia’s child, her mother said, was affected by being taken out of school just a few weeks after returning to campus.
They also add that the government has not provided incontrovertible proof that there is a need for the schools’ closure.
“This decision has not been based on science,” Colosia said. “The government has not provided parents with scientific data [supporting that] the level of contagion is related to the schools. In fact, the government is going against the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta (CDC) which recommends that schools remain open.” She added that this doesn’t make sense when taking into consideration that stores, restaurants, beaches, and other public venues remain open.
An Alarming Surge
However, Health Secretary Mellado said that while no COVID-19 breakouts were identified at any of the schools, the move is necessary given the recent spike in cases.
On April 12 of this year, the COVID-19 molecular test positivity rate in Puerto Rico was at 13.4%. On that date alone, 753 new cases were confirmed on the island, as well as 387 hospitalizations. At that time there were 103,318 confirmed cases and 2,155 fatalities.
These numbers are the reason other parents agree with the government’s decision to temporarily close the schools.
Lynmar de Jesús, an occupational therapist at Puerto Rico’s Health Department, knows how important it is for children’s holistic development and emotional well-being to attend in-person classes. However, at this point she is in favor of the government’s decision to close the schools.
“I am extremely concerned that because our children can get infected with COVID-19, new outbreaks emerge from this population,” the mother of a 10-year-old fourth grader told Floricua.
“We know that every day there are more hospitalizations of children, according to statistics. And the fact that our children are present in a classroom is reason enough for new infections to emerge,” she said.
De Jesús added that “I am convinced that it is not the time for in-person classes, and if we have already waited a year and a month for this to happen, then waiting a little longer does not [detract from] the health and total well-being of our children.”
Iris González, a social worker and the mother of a 9-year-old and 15-year-old, agrees.
González and her husband, David Daniel, a lawyer, don’t feel safe sending their children to school due to the careless behavior they have seen in videos that have gone viral.
“We feel that there is a lack of control in the population. They talk about people being vaccinated, but I feel that people [trust this] and are not taking social distancing measures,” González told Floricua.
“I am particularly concerned about [my teenage son’s] generation. They believe they are invincible… and I feel that there is still no control in schools. Since the beginning, it has been seen that young people could be the ones that make others sick at home.”
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For this reason, she said, “We would wait until August [to see] if there is already a greater control after vaccination. [Children] need to socialize, share with others. But as parents, we understand that at this time the most important thing is their health. My young son is asthmatic, his health is much more important.”
Help for the Parents
Approximately 44% of the island’s workforce is made up of women, and it is estimated that 52% of the families on the island have women as head of the household, said Representative-at-Large Jesús Manuel Ortíz from the Popular Democratic Party, citing statistics from the Department of Labor.
So in an effort to help parents navigate the coming weeks while the children are schooled at home, Ortíz called on the government to seek alternatives that will allow parents to continue to work remotely.
“Without a doubt, the government of Puerto Rico must evaluate the current situation and once again promote teleworking in all possible areas without affecting services to citizens… [making it] possible for fathers and mothers to work from home while their children receive virtual education in the coming weeks, ” he said.