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Setting the stage to reopen private schools

The government of Puerto Rico has the responsibility to avoid those deficiencies shown in the administration of the public education system during the pandemic do not reappear in the protocols to reopen private schools.

In the process of reauthorizing activities or services that have been limited as mechanisms seeking to contain the spread of COVID-19, measures to safely maintain the operations of private schools should not be relegated.

Private schools in Puerto Rico took the first steps in virtual education, which is now emerging as the main alternative for academic activities during the pandemic. In this sense, the government should consider the opportunity of starting a dialogue that would allow for the immediate implementation of appropriate guidelines applicable to educational services in these institutions while the health emergency continues.

Through this approach, by learning in detail about successful private sector educational practices, the government could bring some of these initiatives to public schools and encourage beneficial partnerships for a growing number of students through a dynamic conversation with private sector representatives.

Government efforts in collaboration with private sector educators should also serve to aggressively prevent the academic lag of students whose learning process has been stunted in recent months. However, efforts should move swiftly to ensure well-considered decisions, without improvisation or shortcomings already experienced in public schools.

In Puerto Rico, the network of private schools that provide services to students from elementary to twelfth grade represented an investment of approximately $2 billion annually before the economic contraction period. Although dozens of these teaching centers have recently been forced to close, 641 schools are still operating with a total of 121,000 students at the beginning of the last academic year.

For decades, many private schools on the island have stood out with curricula that, besides the basic skills of regular subjects, integrate courses in art, technology, physical education, as well as tutoring programs with high academic standards. Most of these institutions have a long educational history and their graduates have successfully joined local and international universities.

Currently, the medical Task Force that presented the recommendations for a gradual reactivation of the economy, subject to strict preventive measures against COVID-19, placed educational services in the final line of gradual reopening. This situation prevents private schools from immediately knowing the minimum criteria for determining the future operations of each institution.

Depending on the protocol the government adopts, private schools will have to consider how they adjust their academic semestersand what educational alternatives they keep in place. According to private school teachers and administrators, they cannot determine precise plans for virtual education, as well as initiatives to resume face-to-face operations. They argue that semester planning, as well as the processes for enrolling regular and new students, involve complex procedures that should not be affected by government decisions made at the end of the summer.

In other jurisdictions, resuming classes in public and private systems has been conditioned to changes in classroom furniture and equipment, considering the physical distance factor to limit the risk of contagion, and they have also limited the number of students per class and intensified regular cleaning and disinfection measures.

Timely government decisions to foster stability in the private education sector will reduce uncertainty for thousands of families with children studying in these institutions and will contribute to bringing a calm environment to reactivating essential social and economic activities under the necessary safety conditions that the pandemic requires.

The government's efforts in this sense involve swiftly promoting fair conditions to properly educate our population and to foster competitive human capital, which is crucial in the agenda that will mark a firm return to the sustainable development of Puerto Rico.