Thousands of children in Argentina haven’t attended school for over 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and parents are asking Pope Francis to lobby on their behalf during a meeting with President Alberto Fernandez on Thursday.

Through a letter sent to the Vatican, members of a movement called “Organized Parents of Buenos Aires Province” asked Francis to push the importance of respecting the right children and adolescents have to an education.

Francis served as archbishop of the Argentine capital from 1998 until his election as pope in 2013.

“In a context of health, social and economic crisis, more than 60 percent of children [in Buenos Aires] live in poverty,” the parents write. “In the vast majority of municipalities, children have gone through the last 18 months without attending classes and more than one million children during 2020 lost touch with their school. Closed schools only deepen this disaster.”

The parents also warn that as long as the right to literacy is forgotten, the vindication of all other rights will be delayed or minimized.

Furthermore, they wrote, in most of the cities or towns where in-person education was interrupted in March 2020 – and in many cases never resumed – children who live in extreme poverty face even more obstacles now, with a rapidly deteriorating physical and emotional health. Many of these children depend on their schools to get at least one meal a day.

The parents’ plea to Pope Francis comes after the Fernandez government sent Congress a bill to regulate restrictions and empower the president to suspend classes in those districts that are struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19. The decision by the president to suspend in-person education was poorly received by many mayors and governors who openly challenged him on the issue, including the mayor of the autonomous city of Buenos Aires, led by a member of the opposition.

With the help of a court order, classes have resumed in Buenos Aires city, which contains 7 percent of the country’s population, but in the greater Buenos Aires region, home close to 32 percent of Argentina’s population, the situation depends on the whims of the political leadership and the teachers’ unions. The unions, particularly those belonging to public schools, have argued that it’s not safe for them to go back to their classrooms until they are all vaccinated.

However, several non-essential services have already resumed their activities in many parts of Buenos Aires, including clothing stores and even cinemas.

“We know that school is irreplaceable, it fulfills various roles, it educates but also provides support, especially in adverse social contexts,” the parents wrote. “Closed schools have an enormous social cost that we have not yet been able to quantify.”

Although the parents admit that they are not unaware of the logistical difficulties involved in keeping schools open, they recalled that “recent research has shown that schools are not the main source of contagion while, on the other hand,” the damage of keeping them closed is apparent.

Organized Parents are convinced that “schools should be the last to close and the first to open in the face of the restrictions of the pandemic that is sweeping the world, since it has been proven that the classroom is not contagious.” Moreover, the parents argue schools have the possibility of becoming places of prevention and detection of the virus.

The grassroot movement also says that “without education, our country has no future because it is a fundamental right and children cannot continue to be a variable of adjustment.”

“We beg you to intercede with the authorities so that they dedicate their greatest efforts to guarantee the opening of schools throughout the national territory,” they wrote to Francis.

Though the nitty-gritty details of the conversation between the pope and the president will remain confidential, more than once since the beginning of the pandemic Francis has spoken about the importance of children attending school during this time.

“The pandemic, which forced us to endure long months of isolation and often loneliness, has brought out the need of every individual for human relationships,” Francis told the diplomatic corps accredited to the Holy See in February. “I think before all else of those students who were unable to attend school or university regularly.”

“Furthermore, the increase in distance learning has also led to a greater dependence of children and adolescents on the internet and on virtual forms of communication in general, making them all the more vulnerable and overexposed to online criminal activities,” he added. “We are witnessing a sort of educational catastrophe.”

The pope will welcome Fernandez on Thursday, on the first day of the president’s stay in Rome, after visits to Portugal, Spain and France. This will be their second in-person meeting since Fernandez took office in 2019, and the first since the president legalized abortion in Argentina.

The president is currently on a European tour together with his Minister of Economy, Martín Guzmán. The purpose of the president’s trip is to gather “European support” for the negotiations towards refinancing the debt with the International Monetary Fund.

The last known conversation between the two leaders took place in August 2020, before the Government announced the restructuring of its debt for more than $60 billion.