In small groups, redesigned classrooms and everyone in face masks, more than 10,000 students in San Juan Province returned to their classrooms on Monday for the first time in more than four months.
Children and teenagers in the region are the first students in the country to return to face-to-face teaching since March 20, when President Alberto Fernández ordered a mandatory lockdown to tackle the spread of the Covid-19 in Argentina.
Students in the last years of primary and secondary school returned to their desks, in groups of no more than 15 students.
"The safe return to school for us is fundamental," said National Education Minister Nicolás Trotta, in comments delivered via an online press conference with foreign correspondents in Argentina.
"We are aware of the impact that the pandemic has had on children, and we know that access to technology does not guarantee learning," he added.
Most students went into lockdown mode on March 20, though some schools nationwide had shuttered their classroom doors earlier. At that point, only around two weeks of the new school year had passed. The 2020 school year is scheduled to end in December, as normal.
"I missed my classmates"
Marcos Leonel Canto is one of the 23 children who this Monday attended his sixth grade classes at the rural Escuela 12 de Agosto, in the town of Pocito.
"It was good to see my classmates back. I missed them," he said in a virtual press conference alongside his teacher and the school principal.
"The face mask doesn't bother me," he added.
Until now, Marcos and his classmates have studied with guides that teachers and professors sent by WhatsApp, since there is little Internet connectivity in the area.
"Having class with the students present is very necessary. In complying with the security measures, they are now beginning an apprenticeship that has to become a habit," said the school's director, Mary Liliana Díaz.
On this first day back to school there was no break-time, but nevertheless the playground has been marked with boxes and space, so that at all times there will be a distance of at least five feet between students. The teachers, who must also wear face masks and guards, must also stand two metres away.
"They love to play with the ball. We are used to another life," sighed teacher Melisa García.
The return to face-to-face teaching will be closely watched by provinces throughout Argentina, many of whom are eager to re-open schools and adopt the “bubble” protocol. However, health experts have expressed concerns over the presence of several people in enclosed spaces, which is why schools in the Buenos Aires metropolitan area (AMBA) are unlikely to re-open their doors anytime soon.
The next province in line to resume classes is Catamarca, with a potential return due August 18. Officials will begin working on protocols this week. Santiago del Estero, which was also set to authorise face-to-face teaching has decided to postpone such a move for at least 30 days, after recording a surge in cases over the weekend.