Tens of millions of Mexican children began a new school year with lessons via television Monday in a nationwide experiment in distance learning prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
The government has teamed up with four private television stations to broadcast classes across the Latin American country, which has suffered more than 60,000 deaths from the virus.
Under the ambitious plan, around 30 million public school students between the ages of four and 18 will learn through their TV sets until the situation has improved enough for them to return to the classroom.
"Despite the pandemic, the pain, the suffering it has caused, which unfortunately it continues to cause, we are... standing," President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said as he declared the new school year open.
Face-to-face lessons have been suspended since March in Mexico, which has the world's third-highest fatality toll from the coronavirus after the United States and Brazil.
- 'Caged lion' -
Cooped up in a 50-square-meter (540-square-foot) apartment in the capital's hard-hit Iztapalapa neighborhood for months, 11-year-old Emiliano is "like a caged lion," said his mother Monica Gonzalez, a 49-year-old receptionist.
In front of the television, Emiliano wrote down the answers to the questions he was asked during his first class of the year, though without any sign of great enthusiasm.
To cheer him up, his parents had put up a sign reading: "Happy Back to School 2020-2021."
The government said it chose television for distance learning because it reaches 94 percent of the country, compared with between 70 and 80 percent for the internet.
The content will also be available in 22 indigenous languages, and in remote areas it will be broadcast on the radio, too, said Education Minister Esteban Moctezuma.
But some parents fear standards are bound to slip.
"I'm worried about how good the (lessons) can be through television," said Emiliano's father, Alfredo Urdiain.
Earlier versions of distance-learning videos provided by the authorities "were bad" and looked like they were "taken from YouTube," added the 45-year-old manager of an architectural firm.
Learning requires interaction and not just a stream of information, said Juan Martin Perez, head of the Child Rights Network in Mexico, an alliance of dozens of civil society groups helping vulnerable children.
"Obviously the result is going to be terrible," he added.
- Psychological toll -
Health is among the subjects included in this year's curriculum -- a reflection of the fact that Mexico's children are among the world's most obese.
One quarter of Mexicans who died from the coronavirus suffered from obesity, and three-quarters had at least one underlying condition associated with poor diet.
Months of self-confinement to try to curb the spread of the virus have had a psychological impact among young Mexicans, and the government's educational strategy also includes 160 child support telephone lines.
"These extraordinary measures of physical and social isolation are taking their toll," said Emmanuel Sarmiento, general director of the Juan N. Navarro Children's Psychiatric Hospital.
In the past month, calls to helplines increased by 30 percent, while the number of patients attending the hospital's emergency department doubled, some with the onset of depression and anxiety disorders, he said.