September is the likely target for getting Spain’s children back into schools, after their closure last month due to the coronavirus pandemic. That’s the date being recommended by the group of experts put together by the Spanish Pediatric Association that is advising the government. This would mean that the 8.2 million students who are currently confined in their homes under Spain’s strict lockdown measures will have spent five months without setting foot in a classroom.
The committee was put together after the Health Ministry commissioned a report from the association on the measures it should take with regard to schoolchildren. The opinion among the eight specialists that make up the group is that schools will not be ready to restart classes with the necessary precautions until after the summer.
There will be no return to school before September, because it’s impossible to comply with 1.5-meter social distancingChild psychiatrist José Luis Pedreira
Among the experts advising the government is a child psychiatrist, a specialist in infectious diseases, and experts in pediatric ethics and primary healthcare, among others. “It would not be prudent to open schools in the current circumstances and we can assume that the rest of the ongoing school year will be abandoned,” they say from the commission.
The epidemiologist from the group, Quique Bassat, explains that the return to the classroom is not a priority. “The end of the confinement measures will not begin until well into May, and given that this will nearly be at the end of the school year, there is agreement that it is not worth the risk,” he says. “It will be delayed until September.”
But that will be dependent on the progress of the coronavirus epidemic in Spain, and the experience of China, where children are back at school after four months of isolation. Bassat adds that the group has not set a date, and it will ultimately be the Spanish government that decides when schools will resume activity.
The coordinator of the working group, child psychiatrist José Luis Pedreira, has already warned that the reopening of schools cannot happen with normality given the difficulty of maintaining safe distances. “There will be no return to school before September, because it’s impossible to comply with 1.5-meter social distancing,” he says. “You would have to multiply the space in education centers by three in order to be able to reopen them.”
For these experts, the return to normal life can only happen in step with that of adults, and should be subject to the same conditions. José Ramón Repullo, head of the Department for Health Planning and Economy from the National Health School, cites the criteria from the World Health Organisation (WHO) for the end of confinement.
“The framework for the safe return to school in Spain would be in September, with masks, phasing attendance, first in high school, combining face-to-face and virtual classes, and making the timetables in schools more flexible,” Repullo explains.
Bassat agrees. “The return will be at half throttle,” he says. “There will be general recommendations about separation and hygiene, but they’ll have to be adapted. A school of 300 students is not the same as one with 3,000. To start with, minimum distance will have to be observed, groups will have to be limited to three or four people, and there will be a lot of online classes and few that are face-to-face.” And that is only if everything goes well. “If everything crumbles in China, there will be global panic,” he says.
I can’t imagine small children – nor adolescents and youngsters – using masks or avoiding contact when playing, hugging or the usual squabblingQuique Bassat, epidemiologist
Repullo adds that the WHO criteria “allow for the adjustment of strategies according to geographical areas,” according to the progress of the pandemic. This could mean different rules and regulations in different regions. “In preschools and elementary schools, physical distancing is unworkable,” he explains. “It could be reduced to rotations according to the day of the week.” But this would make work life very difficult for parents of young children.
“I can’t imagine small children – nor adolescents and youngsters – using masks or avoiding contact when playing, hugging or the usual squabbling,” the epidemiologist adds. “And you can’t imagine them being confined in classrooms or courtyards, given that both are part of usual school life.” In middle and high schools, however, classes could be organized so that fewer students coincide in the same space.
Repullo adds that there should be priorities for the schooling of “children from disadvantaged backgrounds and with domestic overcrowding, and those with an absence of IT resources and family support.”
Another of the concerns of families is how to manage their return to work if the schools are closed, and if other family members have to take the children to school. “This should not be done by their grandparents, and schools should consider wider and more flexible timetables so that parents can collect their children when they finish work,” says Repullo. He also adds that schools must reinforce their hygiene measures, such as handwashing. Teachers “should be particularly protected,” he adds. “Especially if they have any kind of health condition that makes them vulnerable.”
“It is reasonable for children to get out onto the street in the same conditions as adults”
The group of pediatric experts that is advising the Spanish government is keen for children to soon be able to leave their houses, and that the “end of the confinement be announced before April 26, which is when the state of alarm will be extended once more.”
“It is reasonable for children to get out onto the street in the same conditions as adults,” says Quique Bassat, a member of the group that is putting together a report on the request of the executive. His group also argues that vulnerable families whose children could be in a more precarious state of health and confinement should be prioritized.
Children in Spain have been confined to their homes for five weeks, and cannot be on the streets unless their parents are obliged to leave the house. They are under the strictest conditions in Europe.
“All of the members [of the working group] want to see children get out on the street and for this to be announced before the state of alarm is extended,” say sources from the working group. They also say that they have concluded that “if the safety measures are followed, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a boy, girl, or a supermarket worker, they are no more contagious than an asymptomatic adult,” a member of the group explains. “In other viral infections, such as the flu,” explains Bassat, “vaccines in children have been seen to greatly reduce the spread. But we know hardly anything about children and the coronavirus.”
Calls for a relaxation of the confinement of minors are growing in Spain, in particular on social media and other public forums, given the concerns over physical and mental risks for youngsters of the lockdown and the violation of rights it involves. The mayor of Barcelona, Ada Colau, published a message on Facebook saying that the “situation is untenable. Free our children.” Madrid Mayor José Luis Martínez Almeida has echoed this call.
English version by Simon Hunter.