CORONAVIRUS

Spanish government considering limiting class sizes to 15 students

Education Ministry and regions are planning a mixed model of online and on-site teaching, but the sector is calling for more resources

A classroom in Saint-Sebastien-sur-Loire, France, that has been prepared for social distancing of students.
A classroom in Saint-Sebastien-sur-Loire, France, that has been prepared for social distancing of students.STEPHANE MAHE / Reuters

The Spanish government is working with the country’s regions to establish a maximum limit of students in each classroom for the upcoming school year, in order to minimize the risk of coronavirus transmissions. The likely limit for each class will be 15.

Currently, some regions – which have devolved powers when it comes to education – allow for as many as 28 children in primary years, and 40 in high schools. The Education Ministry and the regional governments consider splitting current classes up as unfeasible: there will be no funds for more teachers or to sufficiently increase the size of schools.

The likely solution will be a system whereby a student comes to class in shifts, either broken up by morning and afternoon, or on alternate days or weeks, studying from home the rest of the time.

Families have said that this new normality in schooling will require new measures to balance work and home life

“We can’t put everything we have achieved at risk,” said Spain’s education minister, Isabel Celaá, during an interview that was published on Monday in Spanish newspapers 20 Minutos and Heraldo de Aragón. “If all of the children come at once, we can’t respect the obligatory distancing.”

Families have said that this new normality in schooling will require new measures to balance work and home life, while principals consider it essential that they have access to more resources to adapt their schools. Unions and teachers have called for “substantial increases in teaching staff” to be able to be able to combine on-site and distance teaching.

The education authorities are working on the basis that, unless science discovers an efficient treatment for the coronavirus, which has caused more than 25,000 fatalities in Spain so far, or the course of the pandemic takes a radical turn, social-distancing rules will continue to be very strict come September. This will mean that exceptional conditions will still be necessary.

But the difference with the new school year, according to an Education Ministry spokesperson, is that there is time to prepare the online teaching component, something that was not possible in March when schools across the country were unexpectedly shut due to the spread of the virus throughout the population.

The dramatic part here is that some of the students are losing their routines and their willingness to learn
Sociologist Miquel Àngel Alegre

Nor is it the same, the spokesperson adds, spending three months without setting foot in a school, compared to the mixed model, in which there will be regular contact with teaching staff. The drastic reduction in class sizes will also allow for teachers to pay more attention to each student.

That is the optimistic view of the situation. But sociologist Miquel Àngel Alegre, who specializes in education policy, warns that this unheard of and a far from ideal situation will arrive after the end of a school year that will have serious consequences for many. “The dramatic part here is that some of the students are losing their routines and their willingness to learn,” he says. “These shortcomings could lead to disaffection, absenteeism, repetition and dropouts.”

The mixed model will not be the same in all schools. In the interview published yesterday, Celaá suggested halving classes, but the option that is on the table is to establish a maximum number of students, most likely 15, meaning that rural schools with few students will be able to continue as they are now, without having to resort to online teaching.

In urban schools the problem will be much greater. And given the diversity of architecture, the response will not be uniform, the ministry spokesperson explains, given that each school will have to best choose how to meet the rules.

Handwashing and other measures

Pediatrician and epidemiologist Quique Bassat, who was part of the group of experts from the National Pediatrics Association that advised the government on the deescalation of confinement measures for children, says that the other requirements will depend on the stage in which the pandemic is at the time.

But he sets out four elements that will be important, whatever the case: “Social distancing, washing hands with hydroalcoholic gel on entering and leaving class, the possible use of masks, and shifts in the canteen, which is a particularly delicate moment, and also the arrival and exit from schools, to avoid that students and families are all there at the same time.”

Bassat adds that the cleaning of schools will have to be improved and that they will likely have to be disinfected at least once a day. “Technology can help with this,” he says.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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