Madrid school community criticizes ‘reckless’ reopening guidelines

Public centers and unions say the regional government's instructions are impossible to observe without more resources

Victoria Torres Benayas

The regional government of Madrid has issued instructions for reopening schools in the fall that school principals are describing as “impossible to observe.”

One of Spain’s largest labor unions, CC OO, has filed a legal appeal against the measures, which it termed “illegal, reckless and scandalous.” And parents are complaining that the guidelines are too vague.

The public school community has come together in opposition to the plan, and it is asking regional officials to tweak its instructions for a safe reopening of schools. Failing that, the Madrid government could be facing protests and even strikes when the new academic year begins in September.

Spanish children stayed home from school throughout the three-month coronavirus lockdown that began in mid-March, and experts note that remote learning has not worked equally well for everyone. In Spain, education policy is devolved to the regions, although the central government has issued its own recommendations for a safe return to school.

“It’s a disaster, it’s unacceptable and it’s irresponsible. It’s putting at risk the health of teachers, students and families
Esteban Álvarez, Association of Public Secondary School Principals

The Madrid government’s plan considers four possible scenarios with different coronavirus situations. Scenario 1 creates classroom “bubbles” for early and elementary school students who will not have to wear face masks or keep a physical distance between each other. Scenario 2 eliminates cafeteria lunches, recess and other group activities, and introduces more distance learning. Scenario 3 contemplates a new lockdown with only online classes available. And Scenario 4 is reserved for a return to full normality, with added hygiene measures still in place.

But the plan makes no provisions for more teachers, maintains the same classroom sizes as last year, and demands much greater safety measures while warning about a very tight budget without providing any specific figures.

“It’s a disaster, it’s unacceptable and it’s irresponsible. It’s putting at risk the health of teachers, students and families,” said Esteban Álvarez, of the Association of Public Secondary School Principals.

Hand sanitizer and other hygiene measures will become an increasingly important part of the school day.
Hand sanitizer and other hygiene measures will become an increasingly important part of the school day.SANTI BURGOS

Ricardo Marchand of UGT, Spain’s other main union, said that the guidelines are “a cut-and-paste from other years; they contradict the health authorities, and they make no mention of how to adapt the curriculum to make up for the content that was lost this past academic year.”

Óscar Martín Centeno, of the Board of Madrid School Principals, said that Scenario 2, which involves a combination of online and in-person teaching, is not feasible. “We are going to move straight from in-person to at-home, because even if they were to hire a large amount of teachers, there is no space for 20 students to a classroom,” he noted.

Private schools that get public funding – known as concertados – seem less concerned. José Antonio Poveda of Escuelas Católicas, a group representing 67% of the sector, said the Madrid government is being “realistic.”

“It is a great organizational challenge, but we need to find solutions. The alternative is staying at home,” he said, while admitting that not all schools may have the resources to handle the combined online and in-person scenario.

Some sticking points

Same number of students. Each class group may have as many as 28 children in early and elementary school, up to 35 in secondary school and 35 to 39 in Bachillerato, a post-secondary degree, warn the unions. These numbers are allowed by the Spanish Education Ministry, note regional officials.

Same staff. Schools will have “the same teachers as last year in the best of cases,” said a source at CC OO. “But there have been significant cuts at many secondary schools. There is a generalized elimination of teachers for students with special needs.” The Madrid government said it plans to hire 3,500 more people, including teachers and other staff, if Scenario 2 is adopted.

Smaller budget. The regional education chief, Enrique Ossorio, has warned about a very tight budget. “At this point in the year, it is not possible to provide a figure for next year’s budget,” said a department spokesperson. But UGT feels it is “completely impossible to adapt the centers without more money.” Asked about a €290 million allocation from the central government, regional authorities said the money will go towards buying equipment, cleaning, new technology training, and hiring new teachers among others. But no itemized spending document was provided.

Cleaning. Schools are expected to conduct a full cleaning up to three times a day, including the restrooms several times a day All common areas must be disinfected and well ventilated. “Each center would have to be permanently cleaning. If current contracts are not doubled, we can’t do it,” said a school principal.

School cafeterias. This is a major problem due to rules about reduced capacity in communal areas. Private schools are talking about having children eat in their classrooms.

English version by Susana Urra.

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