Reopening schools in Uruguay during a health emergency

2020 has been a very peculiar year.

I started working as an Education Officer in UNICEF Uruguay at the end of January. One month later, a new President assumed office. Two weeks after that, the first case of COVID-19 was detected, and the President declared a national emergency and closed all schools.

We switched to working from home, which meant helping the new government deal with the COVID-19 pandemic remotely. To face the emergency, we quickly built trust despite not having the opportunity to meet in person.

Worried about the negative consequences of school closures on children, we set out to devise a strategy to help them move to home-based learning. One of the first steps was providing tools to help families cope with quarantine, as well as strategies for distance learning. We also held virtual meetings with technical experts and authorities of the National Administration of Public Education to work through the main challenges they were facing in order to keep children safe and learning.

Fortunately, Uruguay had already invested in connectivity beginning with the launch of Plan Ceibal in 2007. The Plan provides every child in the public education system with a laptop, a free internet connection as well as in-depth training for teachers. By leveraging Plan Ceibal, UNICEF contributed both technically and financially to keep children learning. We helped produce a TV programme called Tiempo de Aprender (Time to Learn), developed a teacher training course on digital education and organized a series of webinars for teachers on issues related to violence, protection and home-based learning.

A young girl in a classroom
© UNICEF/UN0349091Children attend rural School nº 73 of San Pedro, Colonia, Uruguay, a few days after face-to-face classes resumed. Uruguay is the first country in the region to resume classes during the emergency situation created by COVID-19.

Prior investments in digital connectivity enabled a rapid switch to home-based learning after schools closed. It also allowed children and adolescents to stay in touch with their teachers and classmates, which was good for their learning and well-being. However, we knew more could be done to keep children in school. As the Government continued to offer meals using schools as distribution centres, we also worked together to design cash transfers for adolescents whose families were most affected by the economic fallout of COVID-19.

Uruguay was the first country in Latin America to reopen its schools, starting in April with schools in low-risk rural areas. By June, all schools had opened their doors. Although the decision took some by surprise, it was a careful process managed jointly by health and education authorities that closely followed the global Framework for Reopening Schools, developed jointly by UNICEF and our partners.

UNICEF Uruguay worked with its counterparts in the Ministry of Education and Culture, the National Administration of Public Education and the Ministry of Health to adapt the global Framework to the national reopening policy, sharing relevant documentation with the national Government and providing advice on the reopening process. In coordination with the National Administration of Public Education and Plan Ceibal, we also documented good teaching practices during the periods of school closure and gradual reopening.

Since in-person classes resumed in June, schools have remained open with few exceptions. Attendance is voluntary and school schedules have been shortened, but students, their families, and teachers are making every effort to adapt to the new normal. Use of educational resources on the online Ceibal platform continues to grow, and it is clear that virtual learning is here to stay as an important tool for teachers and students alike.

Certainly, it has been very interesting to work with colleagues in the Uruguayan education system to protect children’s right to education during COVID-19. As I said, 2020 has been a very peculiar year, but probably the most challenging and rewarding of my career.

Julia Perez Zorrilla is an Education Officer at UNICEF Uruguay.

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