This country gets an A+ on reopening schools

Experts say we should be looking at what this nation did during and before the pandemic.

Uruguay classroom
Getty Images / Stringer

In several countries, kids are preparing to head back to school in the coming weeks—but other kids have already returned to their classrooms.

Parents, educators and epidemiologists have been keeping a close eye on what various countries have done to make in-person schooling safe, and according to experts, one country's back to school approach has been the best of all.

Uruguay closed physical classrooms on March 13 and was one of the first countries in the Western Hemisphere to get kids back into physical schools—starting with some rural schools in April and gradually opening more schools until all students were back in class by the end of June.

Despite sharing a border with Brazil, the country with the second-highest number of cases, Uruguay (a small nation of just 3.5 million people) has done what bigger countries could not and is minimizing the impact of the pandemic on kids' education.

The good news? Experts say there are some big lessons we can learn from the small country.

Equality + trust were key in Uruguay's response, say experts

While demographic and cultural factors and differences in population mean that no country's systems can just be lifted whole cloth and inserted into another, experts say the secret to Uruguay's success lies in a preexisting fight against another enemy of health: inequality.

"Uruguay also has one of Latin America's smallest gaps between rich and poor, rivaled only by Argentina," Jennifer Pribble, an Associate Professor of Political Science and Global Studies at the University of Richmond writes for The Conversation.

According to Pribble, who studies Latin American politics, Uruguay's "low inequality and expansive social policies" and population's trust in democracy and the government meant people were more likely to trust public health recommendations.

As Dr. Alvaro Galiana, head of infectious disease at the Pereira Rossell Hospital in Montevideo told South Florida's NPR station, WLRN "From the early days of this pandemic, we have emphasized to Uruguayans that this virus is going to be around for a long, long time. It's not going to magically disappear before a vaccine is found. And so we have to learn to cohabitate with it accordingly for the long term."

Uruguayans did not experience the same kind of lockdowns seen in many other countries, as businesses remained open while schools and borders closed. But back in March, when the country's top doctors and government officials urged people to take social distancing seriously and wear masks, they did it.

Pribble sees it like this: "Having a strong, transparent democracy, in other words, has enabled Uruguay to acknowledge, evaluate and control a pandemic that has overwhelmed so many bigger and richer nations."

Affordable healthcare makes countries more prepared for pandemics

While Uruguay, like the U.S., does have problems with racial inequality, it also has something America does not: Affordable health care.

The World Health Organization notes that the nation "is committed to achieving universal health coverage for its entire population" after the health care system was reformed in 2005 to prioritizes equity and financial protection for citizens.

According to Pribble's colleague, Bob Spires, an Assistant Professor of Education, University of Richmond, "analysts credit Uruguay's well-organized and efficient public health system and Uruguyans' strong faith in government for its success stopping the coronavirus."

According to Spires, who studies comparative international education, while "there is no perfect way to reopen schools during a pandemic" Uruguay's got an A+ on this challenging assignment while other nations failed.

"Uruguay is notable for residents' consistent and early adoption of measures like social distancing and masks," Spires writes for The Conversation, explaining that while other countries, like Israel and Sweden rushed their reopening plans, Uruguay took things slowly, bringing back rural and vulnerable kids first, before using alternating schedules and a mixture of in-person and online learning to get the entire student population back to class.

The lesson parents (and politicians) can learn from Uruguay's back-to-school plan

Part of what made Uruguay's back-to-school plan possible was the country's pre-existing commitments to equality and access to health care, as well as a strong sense of trust in government.

Right now in the United States, local school division officials are bearing the brunt of parental complaints about re-entry plans, but if we study Uruguay's successful school re-entry we can see how the factors that are keeping some schools closed are above the pay grade of District Superintendents. By failing to address a broken health care system and increasing inequality, lawmakers at the highest possible levels have made everyone's children more vulnerable.

Part of the problem with school re-entry plans is how contradictory they can seem compared to the statements made by the nation's top doctors and even the President. Trust is eroding in the United States, with new research from Pew Research Center finding two-thirds of adults in the U.S. think other adults have little or no confidence in the federal government, and 68% "say it is very important to repair the public's level of confidence in the federal government."

Previous research from research and consultancy company The Family Room shows that moms in particular are looking for competent leadership in government and say competency is more important now than political party affiliation.

It's too late to turn back the clock so that the United States can replicate Uruguay's school re-entry plans, but it is not too late to demand lawmakers earn the trust of parents by prioritizing the health of a nation.

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