The Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the Buenos Aires City government in its education dispute with the national government, confirming that City Hall has the right to decide whether in-person classes at schools in the capital should continue.
Four of the five Supreme Court justices – Carlos Rosenkrantz, Juan Carlos Maqueda, Ricardo Lorenzetti and Horacio Rosatti – all voted to limit the national government's say over educational matters. Elena Highton de Nolasco, the court's other member, chose to abstain given her belief that the issue was not a matter for the court.
"The CABA [Autonomous City of Buenos Aires] and the [country's] provinces can regulate the opening of schools," read a 91-page ruling issued by the court minutes after the decision became known. It declared that regional governments could "prioritise the opening and resumption of face-to-face classes."
Reacting to a second wave surge of Covid-19 infections, President Alberto Fernández issued an emergency decree back in mid-April suspending face-to-face classes with teachers at schools in the Buenos Aires Metropolitan Area (AMBA), ordering their postponement for an initial two-week period.
Buenos Aires City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta launched an immediate legal challenge to the DNU in the courts, and on Tuesday, Argentina's highest tribunal declared that president's move was a violation of City Hall's autonomy.
"The National State can only regulate the exercise of the right to education concurrently with the provinces, establishing the bases, but it cannot normally substitute them, or decide autonomously by departing from the current legal regime," said the justices.
Fernández, who has since extended the decree until May 21, argues that the move to suspend in-person classes in necessary in order to reduce the circulation of people in the AMBA region, which is made up of Buenos Aires City and its heavily populated periphery.
The Buenos Aires Province government, led by allied Governor Axel Kicillof, shuttered schools and followed suit, but City Hall refused to back down. After winning the support of a local City appeals court, which kicked the case up to Supreme Court, capitals in the school have remained open, in defiance of the president's wishes, though Rodríguez Larreta has introduced a "mixed modality" scheme, in which infant and primary level education continue with classes, while secondary school students learn through a mix of school attendance and remote learning.
The justices said in their ruling that the president's decree was in direct violation of the "autonomy of the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires," adding that their decision applied to both the initial decree and its extension.
"The fact that the strict observance of the procedural terms of the summary trial has exceeded the short term of temporary validity of the challenged DNU does not prevent this Court from issuing its ruling, given that circumstances such as those examined in the case may be extended or repeated,” they wrote.
The ruling from the justices is a mayor victory for Mayor Rodríguez Larreta, a key leader in the opposition Juntos por el Cambio coalition. The majority of children in Argentina went almost an entire year without face-to-face classes in 2020, amid a strict government lockdown to tackle the spread of Covid-19 in the country, and parents have organised themselves into pressure groups to challenge the president's decision.
Argentina, which has battled a surge in infections over the past six weeks, has recorded more than three million confirmed cases of Covid-19, with a death toll of more than 64,000. In mid-April, the country was regularly recording more than 25,000 new cases a day. The occupancy of intensive care units in the City reached 82 percent on Tuesday.