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Thanks For The Schools-And-COVID News, CDC. But You're A Year Behind Uruguay.

Matilde Campodonico
ALLEVIATING ANXIETIES Uruguayan children and their teacher in a socially distanced classroom in Montevideo last year.

COMMENTARY Uruguay determined, long before the U.S.'s premier health agency, it was safe to re-open schools during the pandemic – and made it work.

My wife is an especially dedicated teacher. So are (and were) several other people in my family. So I take their anxieties about returning to in-person teaching during this pandemic especially seriously. But I admit I believe it’s better for kids to go back to the classroom — if we manage it as smartly and safely as Uruguay has.

Yeah, Uruguay – which was, oh, about nine months in front of the U.S. on this critical corona-issue.

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This week, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention researchers tell us there’s “little evidence” that in-person schooling leads “to increased community transmission” of COVID-19. They’re in essence telling America it’s safe now to put students in front of smart boards instead of "Zoombie" screens.

This was greeted as a breathlessly big deal on U.S. TV network news. But the only surprise about the CDC’s conclusion is that it took a U.S. federal health agency this long to draw it. If the Trump Administration – and state and local officials, Democrat and Republican – had simply looked below the equator they might have looked ahead of the curve.

READ MORE: Small Uruguay Is Big Proof That Committing to Public Health Can Contain COVID-19

Last spring — when Americans still couldn’t pronounce hydroxychloroquine, let alone devise a school re-opening strategy — Uruguay was moving its niños off their kitchen tables and back to their classroom desks. That's a doubly impressive achievement given that kids generally in Latin America have lost a massive amount of educational ground to the pandemic. By the end of the summer (which is winter for Uruguay) that process was complete and, by most accounts, a complete success.

I recently checked in with Dr. Mónica Pujadas, a member of the Uruguayan government’s Scientific Consulting Group that drafted the school re-opening recommendations. She reported there were still “no cases of student-to-teacher or student-to-student COVID transmission” there. None. There had been a couple teacher-to-student transmissions. But on the whole, Pujadas said, “Uruguay believes it’s safe for children to gather again in schools – safe for them and teachers and the community.”

The only surprise about the CDC's conclusion is that it took a federal health agency this long to draw it. If the U.S. had simply looked below the equator — at Uruguay — it would have looked ahead of the curve.

Unlike the U.S. – where politicians can convince people in Hialeah that the Obamacare they rely on is dastardly, Cuba-style socialism – Uruguay considers public health a priority. Admittedly, its COVID cases and deaths have spiked this month; but its numbers are still among the hemisphere’s lowest. And a key reason its school re-entry project worked is that it was led not by political demagogues but by medical doctors.

Their first step was to confirm that children are far less likely to either contract or transmit COVID-19 – and that “they simply get less sick from it if they are infected,” Pujadas said.


Next they determined that the “para-pandemic” risks for kids forced to stay at home – factors like child mental health, obesity, educational backsliding, pandemic stress-related domestic abuse – far outweighed any pandemic risks inside school buildings.

Then they envisioned reconfiguring those buildings for proper social distancing, smaller class sizes, ventilation and hygiene.

Finally, they drew up a gradual and structured re-opening schedule. They approached the phase-in by regions instead of grade levels — opening rural schools where virus transmission was lighter before moving on to more urban and virus-vulnerable districts. The time students and teachers are in the schools each day is limited to four hours — and they’re subject to a regular COVID testing regimen, especially at-risk teachers.

Perhaps most important: Uruguay made their return to school voluntary. “That served to reduce fear and raise confidence as the process moved forward,” said Pujadas — to the extent that teacher and student in-person attendance has eventually neared 90 percent.

Kathy Willens
U.S. students return to in-person learning at a high school in Brooklyn, New York.

Some might argue this can work in Uruguay only because it has a small population of 3.5 million. Pujadas says: OK, then think of Uruguay as a U.S. county, like Miami-Dade — or Marin in California, probably the only U.S. locale that’s bothered to look at Uruguay’s plan. Since Marin re-opened its classrooms last fall, its in-school COVID transmission rate has been as negligible as Uruguay’s.

One caveat: Uruguay and Marin County in general had low COVID test positivity rates to begin with — while jurisdictions like Miami-Dade still have rates high enough to make full school re-opening a more anxiety-ridden prospect for teachers like my wife.

Still, as Dr. Lisa Santora, Marin’s Deputy Public Health Officer, told me, “This approach is the kind of strong, science-based guidance U.S. teachers have been waiting for.”

Waiting for too long, when it was right under the equator this whole time.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.