By Lizbeth Diaz and Noe Torres
MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Millions of students returned to classes virtually in Mexico on Monday after a hiatus lasting months caused by the coronavirus pandemic that has sparked an exodus from private schools.
Mexico has yet to publish official data, but private-school bodies consulted by Reuters said almost 2 million students at all levels were expected to quit private schools because of the crisis to join an already overcrowded public system.
The lack of both in-person teaching and access to facilities has left many parents unwilling to shoulder private-school costs.
"We're facing a tremendous crisis," said Alfredo Villar, head of the National Association of Private Schools. "Many schools are running out of people and will very likely have to close."
Supporters of private schools worry the turmoil could stretch the education system, especially after President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador last year canceled a reform that the previous government said would improve teaching standards in Mexico, one of the worst-performing countries in the 37-nation Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Schools were among the first institutions ordered into lockdown in March, taking over 30 million students from some 216,500 public schools, and 5 million private students, out of classrooms.
Mexico has since recorded more than 60,000 deaths from COVID-19, the third-highest toll from the pandemic globally.
In an attempt to retain pupils and tuition payments, private schools are trying to lure parents with discounts, scholarships and other benefits.
It has not been enough for some.
"It's ridiculous. They reduced (tuition) 3%, but before that they raised it 30% in the previous cycle," said Alicia Martinez, 37, who from the beginning of the crisis began struggling to support her two children in a paying school.
The pandemic has recently eased, but the government decided that infections remained too high to risk reopening schools.
So students are starting the new academic year with a home-learning program broadcast by major television networks until infection rates are deemed sufficiently low.
While just over half of homes in Mexico have internet, and even fewer have computers, close to 93% have at least one television, according to the national statistics institute.
So far, virtual school is off to a bumpy start, parents and teachers said.
"The first day of classes was chaotic for kids and teachers," said Maritza Moreno, an instructor at a private school in the central state of Tlaxcala. With textbooks for the government television curriculum yet to arrive in her rural community, teachers were at a loss.
"We had no clue about the content of the television programs," she said.
The outlook has forced over 48,000 private schools to move online - a setback for many centers whose reputation rests on their facilities.
At least 15 parents who spoke to Reuters in recent days said they had withdrawn their children from private schools to put them in the public system.
The government says it can pick up the slack.
"Nobody's going to be left out. We're ready to receive this wave of migration from private schools," Deputy Education Minister Marcos Bucio told reporters.
The ministry says it will have an estimate of the extent of the shift to public from private education after September.
According to the National Confederation of Private Schools (CNEP), most of its 3,500 members will see enrollment drop by up to 30% this school year. Some private schools anticipate a decline of up to 60%.
"The situation is really chaotic," said CNEP president Maria de Jesus Zamarripa.
Private-school representatives will propose measures to the government to rescue their operations, including tax breaks, she said.
(This story was refiled to add dropped word in paragraph 14)
(Reporting by Lizbeth Diaz and Noe Torres; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Peter Cooney and Tom Brown)