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How 3 Countries Are Educating Their Kids During The Pandemic

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Around the world, parents, teachers and students are all dealing with the same problem - how to safely resume teaching in the new year. This morning, our international correspondents take us to three countries with different approaches to that challenge. You'll hear from South Korea and Greece. And first, NPR's Carrie Kahn has this report from Mexico.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Parents in Mexico aren't nagging their kids to turn off the TV and do their schoolwork. This year, TV is school.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: The school year opened last week as broadcasting cable stations began airing what will be more than 4,000 lessons, some as brief as five minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As characters, singing in Spanish).

KAHN: This music lesson on the station dedicated to primary school education didn't have the greatest audio quality or production value. It looked like a corny children's show from the 1970s. With far more Mexicans owning TVS than having access to the Internet, education officials opted to put this year's curriculum on the tube. Education Secretary Esteban Moctezuma says while some countries just closed down schools, Mexico put safety first and got innovative.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ESTEBAN MOCTEZUMA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Maybe those other countries just didn't have the commitment of Mexican teachers," he said. While the teachers may appreciate the accolades, many say the TV plan doesn't serve all children equally, like Rogelio Vargas. He teaches middle school in the southern state of Oaxaca and is a vocal union member.

ROGELIO VARGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Vargas says it won't be the same for the kids he teaches as the kids in Mexico City, who have access to strong TV signal and parents' help. His kids are poor and have to share televisions, struggle with bad reception and also hold down jobs. And he says it's unclear the role teachers will play in the televised instruction plan. Mexico's public schools are also dealing with a large influx of former private school students, albeit at a distance for the moment. Maria de Jesus Zamarripa, who heads a nationwide organization of private schools, says as many as 40% of her member schools have closed due to the pandemic's economic fallout.

MARIA DE JESUS ZAMARRIPA: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: She says public schools are already overwhelmed. Now their teachers will be responsible for even more students. Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Mexico City.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: I'm Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. After six months of keeping the virus under control, new cases recently jumped into the triple digits. So South Korea ordered most schools in the capital closed until September 11 and possibly longer. Classes moved online, but there is an exception. High school seniors preparing for college entrance exams in December will continue to go to school. For 18-year-old Seoul-based high school senior Elena Kim (ph), exam time is stressful.

ELENA KIM: If there is an exam in my school, I just can sleep only about, like, two or three hours a day.

KUHN: The national college entrance exam decides not just where Koreans will go to college but where they'll work, how much they'll earn and sometimes who they'll marry. On the day of the exam, some airplanes stop flying; military exercises are halted; nothing is permitted to disturb the test-takers. This year, there's a strict plan for test-taking students, including desks separated by plastic screens. So if the government says she has to show up for the test, Elena Kim says she's going to take it.

KIM: In other countries, going to college or universities are just a matter of choice. But I think that it is our duty to go to college as a Korean high school senior.

KUHN: Even so, this dutiful student disagrees with her government's policy. Kim submitted a petition to the presidential office website. She doesn't go so far as to accuse the South Korean government of forcing high school seniors to put their education before their health. She simply argues that seniors should take classes online too so as not to risk getting infected and spreading the disease.

KIM: I thought that there would be other ways to guarantee both right to health and the education right.

KUHN: If her petition garners 200,000 signatures by September 24, the government is obliged to respond. But with less than 10,000 signatures so far, it looks like a very long shot. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: And I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens where the plan is for Greek students to go back to their classrooms on September 14.

NEFELI SIDEROPULU: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Sixteen-year-old Nefeli Sideropulu (ph) is ready for the COVID-19 edition of her senior year in high school. Tucked inside her backpack of notepads and schoolbooks is a zippered vanity case.

It's got little hearts on it.

SIDEROPULU: Yes. It's cute. I have here my hand sanitizer, I have my mask.

KAKISSIS: It's a disposable mask.

SIDEROPULU: Yes, yes. I have another one. I think it's on the laundry.

SVETLANA EFRIMEDU: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: Her mother, Svetlana Efrimedu (ph), is sewing her more cloth masks. But Mom's worried, especially because the number of COVID-19 infections rose dramatically last month.

EFRIMEDU: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "My daughter is responsible," she says. "But this is Greece, where we all hug and kiss and the kids will too after being away from their school friends all summer." Another parent, Yoro Strapisyotis (ph) has two children in elementary school attending grades four and six this year.

YORO STRAPISYOTIS: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: He says he wants no more than 15 students per classroom, which would mean hiring more teachers. Meanwhile, special education teacher Magdelana Paktiti (ph) is anxious about how her students, who have autism and Down syndrome, will react to social distancing.

MAGDELANA PAKTITI: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "They cannot comprehend what coronavirus means," she says. "So they get very upset when we can't hold their hands or get near them."

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting in non-English language).

KAKISSIS: A union representing Greek teachers shares all these concerns. They recently protested in central Athens, demanding that the government postpone reopening schools. Education Minister Niki Kerameus has promised to supply free masks and hand sanitizers at all schools. She told reporters that the government is trying to balance safety with normalcy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NIKI KERAMEUS: (Non-English language spoken).

KAKISSIS: "We have to try to be patient and above all adaptable," she said, "for the sake of our children and ourselves." For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis in Athens.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BREATHING EFFECT'S "PHOTOSYNTHESIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.