Mexican children return to school


With a quick health check and a dollop of hand sanitizer, millions of Mexican schoolchildren returned to fresh-scrubbed classrooms Monday after more than two weeks of closures caused by the swine flu outbreak.

An estimated 18 million pupils in primary and secondary schools went back to class, although seven Mexican states postponed reopening for an additional week because of suspected new cases.

Health officials said Monday that they had confirmed 2,059 cases of H1N1 virus in Mexico, with 56 deaths.


Mexico has sought to restore normality little by little, and officials waited before reopening schools for the nation’s youngest pupils. Universities and high schools resumed Thursday, a day after most businesses reopened.

Mexican officials spent days disinfecting schools to ease parents’ worries. The Health Ministry distributed 16 pages of guidelines designed to prevent the spread of infection in the classroom. Kissing or even sharing a pencil is frowned upon. Frequent hand-washing is good. So is wearing a mask.

Youngsters were screened at the front door for possible flu symptoms, such as fever and headache. But policing hygiene will be difficult in Mexico’s poorest precincts, where thousands of schools lack bathrooms or running water.

Even in better-off areas, some parents were uneasy taking children to class with the flu still circulating, even though officials say it is abating.

“First they tell us that the situation is serious, that we avoid contact with other people, and look how many people there are here,” homemaker Rosario Beltran Diaz said at a school in Mexico City’s middle-class San Mateo section. “It’s worse than the subway.”

Still, a majority of Mexicans said they felt safe sending children back to school, according to a poll published Sunday in the newspaper Reforma.


On Monday, the scene outside many classrooms was otherworldly, with neatly combed youngsters wearing school uniforms and surgical masks. Teachers were, in some cases, covered head to toe in disposable scrubs.

Lines snaked down the sidewalk as masked school personnel questioned students and parents about the children’s health. Those with so much as the sniffles were turned away.

Yolanda Carvajal looked heartbroken as she stood outside a Mexico City primary school with her 8-year-old son, Guillermo. After 2 1/2 weeks, she was more than ready for a return to normal life.

Not today.

“They wouldn’t let him in because he has a runny nose,” Carvajal said. She was instructed to get a doctor’s note certifying that Guillermo is not carrying the flu virus.

The boy, dressed in an emerald cardigan and sky-blue mask, looked confused. “He’s not sick,” his mother insisted.

Confusion reigned as officials sought to enforce guidelines that had been hastily and, in the opinion of some parents, poorly drawn up. Some children were rejected for not bringing hand-sanitizing gel, a requirement parents said they didn’t know about.


The flu outbreak, announced April 23, forced children inside just days after the two-week Easter break. Schools closed first in Mexico City, then all over the country.

Playgrounds were largely abandoned. Malls and movie theaters were closed. The result: a pandemic of cabin fever. There was little else to do but fight with your brother.

Luis Cruz said his son Cristofer, 8, studied math and reading, but it was hardly a working vacation. “They watched a lot of television,” Cruz said.

You could almost hear a collective sigh from weary parents.

“It’s great they opened the school,” said one mother, Carolina Madero. “The kids return to school and peace returns to the house.”


Sanchez is a news assistant in The Times’ Mexico City Bureau.