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Puerto Rico reopens public schools amid COVID-19 fears

Students arrive at the Ramon Marin Sola primary school for the first time in nearly a year amid the COVID-19 pandemic as some public schools reopen in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Danica Coto)
Students arrive at the Ramon Marin Sola primary school for the first time in nearly a year amid the COVID-19 pandemic as some public schools reopen in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, March 10, 2021. (AP Photo/Danica Coto) (Copyright 2021. The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

SAN JUAN – Parents across Puerto Rico knelt down on Wednesday to adjust their children's face masks and backpacks as public schools reopened for the first time in nearly a year despite the pandemic, with officials reporting scarce attendance amid COVID-19 concerns.

The hugs outside schools were followed by a temperature check and a dollop of hand sanitizer at some of the 96 of the U.S. territory's 858 public schools authorized to reopen because they were located in a municipality with a low number of coronavirus cases and had met a list of requirements issued by Puerto Rico’s Health Department. Among them was the Ramón Marín Solá primary school in Guaynabo, where parents checked their children’s face masks before hugging them goodbye.

“You can’t touch it,” a man told his young son who was tugging at his mask.

“It itches, it itches a lot,” his son replied as he walked into the school for the first time as a kindergartner.

For now, only kindergarteners, special education students and children in first, second, third and 12th grades are allowed to return to school. They will attend in-person classes only twice a week and be dismissed before noon, with school cafeterias remaining closed, although there is a “grab-and-go” option.

In-person attendance is not obligatory, and remote classes were still being offered.

“It was important to have in-person education once again, even if it’s little by little,” Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said.

Of the 100 students at the Ramón Marín Solá school who were allowed to return to class, only about 30 showed up despite confirmation from the parents of 75 children, officials said.

Among them was Luzceli Rivera’s 6-year-old son.

“This is something we have to learn to live with,” she said after dropping him off, adding that she had no qualms about sending him back to school because he had a strict teacher.

Rivera and her husband were previously infected with the coronavirus, along with one of their three sons, but not the one who was returning to class: “He knows he has to keep the mask on.”

The schools that reopened Monday were located in about 50 of the U.S. territory’s 78 municipalities, with openings and closures expected to fluctuate in upcoming weeks depending on the number of coronavirus cases in a specific municipality and whether any infections are reported at a school.

Union leaders and some parents and teachers have called on Pierluisi’s administration to wait until August to reopen schools, noting the U.S. territory has not seen a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases.

Sheila Mercado, a Spanish teacher at a school that has not yet been authorized to reopen, said she feels the reopening has been rushed.

“They have had an entire year to get schools into shape,” she said. “Eventually, one has to return to the classroom because we’re not going to remain like this all our lives...but they glossed over this plan.”

The island of 3.2 million people has reported more than 180,700 confirmed and suspected coronavirus cases and more than 2,000 deaths. As of Sunday, more than 607,000 people have been vaccinated, with nearly 227,000 already having received the second dose.