Amid COVID-19, Costa Rican schools safely reopen: Keisy’s back-to-school journey
“I still haven’t been able to hug my friends. We used to hug each other at recess and work on homework together. Amid the virus, everything changed. I’m scared, yes. But I want to go back to school. I want the pandemic to end. I want to study and have a normal life” said Keisy Villalta, 11 years old.
Thanks to collective efforts, safe classrooms, and remote learning models set in place, more than a million students returned to school in Costa Rica. With the United Nations' support, Costa Rica has become one of the first countries to open its educational institutions on time, providing security and inclusion for thousands of children, adolescents, and young people.
Feeling both happiness and anxiety about returning to school
Keisy— an 11-year-old girl— is an exceptional student at León XIII School, which is based in an especially vulnerable area of San José, Costa Rica's capital.
During her first day back at school, Keisy joined the line of students awaiting to enter the school facility. At the school's gate, a staff member greeted and checked that Keisy was wearing a mask. The staff member then escorted Keisy to the nearest handwashing station. Afterwards, Keisy moved on to the temperature checkpoint. Her 36.5º temperature granted her access to the building!
A teacher welcomed her at the second gate, and so Keisy began the new school year, amid safety and hygiene protocols designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
When she grows up, Keisy hopes to work in science. She dreams of becoming an engineer, designing substantial projects. She is already practicing at home—spending a lot of time crafting drawings and designs. She knows that going back to school is essential to achieving her career goals and providing financial support for her family in the future.
“I missed my teachers and classmates a lot. I went through difficult days, especially when I had to do math homework that I didn’t understand,” the girl whispers in a soft voice.
As the head of the household and mother of three, Keisy’s mom, Katherine, says that the suspension of in-person classes in 2020 caused many challenges and anxiety for her daughter. She did not have a computer or a tablet at home—much less, internet access. So, they had to redirect a significant part of their family budget—about US$18 per month—towards buying a mobile plan. For instance, the learning guidelines— developed by the Ministry of Public Education of Costa Rica amid the pandemic—recommend using an instant messaging app (such as WhatsApp) to ask questions and send assignments.
“My daughter was the happiest girl in the world when she found out that she was going back to school. She was bored at home, she was stressed and felt very isolated without seeing her teachers and classmates, whom she had lost contact with since the beginning of the pandemic”, stated Katherine.
Ready for in-person learning and its upcoming challenges
Marco Flores is the Principal of the León XIII School, which provides education and opportunities to more than 1,300 boys and girls, most of whom live in socially vulnerable situations. He has been a school principal for 24 years and says that he has never faced any challenge as great as COVID-19.
“The Ministry of Public Education gave us the protocols and materials for safe return [to in-person learning], and it has given us the support we need. But it is all of us, working at the school, who must take responsibility for the students to ensure their safe return,” said the principal.
The school staff is amazed by the level of commitment from the community to ensure the school meets the COVID-19 school re-opening guidelines, which demonstrates the great work that the authorities and its partners have done to bring prevention and safety messages to the population.
In its effort to safely get education back on track and give a help those most in need, the school has delivered nearly 12,500 food packages to students’ families as part of the Ministry of Public Education’s continued support of all students, including those living in vulnerable situations. Each food package contained fruits, vegetables, rice, beans, eggs and milk. The León XIII school also distributed about 2,000 daily rations of food to families that cannot afford to feed their children a complete and balanced diet each day.
“When we delivered the food packages, families turned in their children’s completed schoolwork. Then, we would give them more schoolwork to complete. This is how we managed to detect 57 students, who were at risk of dropping out, and who were not doing their work,” explained Marco, the school-principal.
With a focus on preventing school dropouts, the school activated its early warning system. It mobilized a team of counsellors, social workers, community members, and institutional personnel to locate and convince those students to return to school.
“We were able to rescue the 57 students,” says the school-principal with a satisfied smile behind his facemask.
The Minister of Education of Costa Rica, Giselle Cruz Maduro, highlighted that, as of 8 February, the Ministry of Public Education demonstrated effective efforts bringing students back to school.
There was a clear objective to establish a safe, gradual, and monitored process. She stated:
"With combined, in-person and distance learning practices, strict compliance to health protocols and with continuous monitoring, we advanced towards our goal to leave no one behind!"
In Costa Rica, the police can visit students’ homes to remind families that school attendance is a right, and it is also compulsory. So far, this measure has not been necessary. By the first day, we had already reached full attendance", explained the principal of the León XIII school.
The UN at the service of students, teachers, communities, and the country
The UN stressed that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, Costa Rica made enormous strides to ensure educational continuity by sticking to the Back-to-School Strategy—the sanitary and pedagogical conditions for returning to in-person education, with specific protocols to address varying circumstances.
Allegra Baiocchi, the UN Resident Coordinator in Costa Rica, highlighted that the return to in-person education is key to overcoming inequalities and is a firm step towards fighting against inequality and discrimination that the country aims to end.
“We are filled with hope by Costa Rica’s commitment to start the 2021 school year. We are pleased with the efforts announced by the President and the Government of the Republic to promote the law that establishes a National Digital Literacy Programme, along with the investment of more than 166 million dollars for the construction and improvement of conditions of 165 schools and colleges”.
UNICEF supported the Ministry of Public Education to facilitate virtual education and implement the Return Strategy (Estrategia Regresar in Spanish) for the safe and progressive return to in-person classes. In 2020, while schooling carried out remotely, the distribution of autonomous learning guides and delivery of educational kits to pre-schoolers and first-cycle students went on. USAID and the US Embassy provided 642 schools with essential supplies like gel alcohol, disinfectants, hand soap and thermometers.
As part of the Latin America & the Caribbean COVID-19 Education Response, UNICEF developed materials on best practices and educational innovations, access to services and prevention of exclusion, along with a social media campaign to amplify a safe return to school for all.
With the support of USAID, UNICEF helped develop learning guides such as “Learn at home” (“Aprendo en casa” in Spanish) and supported the campaign, “Yo me cuido, yo te cuido, la comunidad se cuida” (“I take care of myself, I take care of you, our community takes care of itself”), a series of health protocols to prevent and protect students, their families and staff, implemented by the Ministry of Public Education. These joint efforts' budget exceeds one million dollars.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) supports the country's efforts to donate tech equipment such as tablets to students living in vulnerable situations and promote compliance with biosafety protocols by providing masks for low-income students. UNESCO is also advancing efforts to ensure water and sanitation installations in schools.
Even though about 92 per cent of students in Costa Rica were able to continue with their education despite difficulties, not all succeeded. In 2020, the Ministry of Public Education indicated that around 91 thousand students’ (8% of 92% of the student population in Costa Rica) education was interrupted—it is necessary to integrate those students again in 2021.
The Ministry of Public Education’s data indicates that of a student population comprised of about a million children and adolescents, only about 60 per cent have access to their educational platform. The rest followed along via WhatsApp, offline and printed digital resources. Also, only 34 per cent of students have the equipment and full connectivity necessary to fully participate, while 29 per cent have limited access to both. The remaining students do not have either.
Patricia Portela de Souza, UNICEF Representative in Costa Rica, pointed out that:
“In addition to school openings—which are extremely important—it is also necessary for Costa Rica to accelerate its efforts to bring new technologies and connectivity to the home of every girl, boy and young person. Technology opens up the opportunity for them to continue their studies during any emergency or difficult situation. It can develop their capacities and skills for life and future employment”.
Esther Kuisch Laroche, a UNESCO representative in Costa Rica, highlighted that the start of the school year generates great optimism: “We must also raise awareness of the challenges to overcoming the impacts of COVID-19 on education, as well as the development of the very young children, especially those living in vulnerable situations”.
UNESCO recently released new data on its Global Education Monitoring Report and its interactive monitoring map showing that one year into the COVID-19 pandemic – over 800 million students, more than half the world’s student population – still face significant disruptions to their education, ranging from full school closures in 31 countries to reduced or part-time academic schedules in another 48 countries.
The interactive monitoring map shows that globally, schools were fully closed for an average of 3.5 months (14 weeks) since the onset of the pandemic. The length of these closures varies greatly by region, from as many as 5 months (20 weeks) of complete nation-wide closures on average in Latin America and the Caribbean countries, to 2.5 months (10 weeks) in Europe, and just one month in Oceania.
The return to in-person learning is key to overcoming inequalities. The latest census in the country found that only 13 per cent of indigenous people graduate from school, with 6 out of 10 attending school, and about 41per cent fell behind in school. Afro-descendants are the population group with the highest level of incomplete high school education (49.1% versus 45.4% of the total population) as well as the lowest level of complete university education (9.3% versus 15.2%), with average schooling of 7.7 years.
“We reaffirm our commitment to accelerate progress in education and the implementation of all necessary measures to ensure a safe return to the classroom and that no child, adolescent or young person is left behind”, said the UN Resident Coordinator in the context of the start of the 2021 school year in Costa Rica.
Every year, the León XIII school requires about US$ 320,000 to keep its doors open. The school’s personnel are currently working to solve a budget deficit as operating cost has significantly increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Story was originally published in Spanish by UN News. Written by Danilo Mora, UN Communications Officer Costa Rica, with the collaboration of Andrei Arias, UNICEF Costa Rica Communications Associate. Translation to English by Carolina Lorenzo. To learn more, visit: https://costarica.un.org/