With just weeks to go, Madrid region yet to announce plan for the reopening of schools

The regional administration, run by the conservative Popular Party, wants the central government to take charge, while unions are not ruling out a strike due to the lack of preparation

Berta Ferrero

There are two weeks left to go before Spain’s schools fully reopen after the coronavirus crisis forced their closure back in March, and the only thing that people in the Madrid region know is that no one knows anything. The Popular-Party-run government, which is in charge of the regional education system, has admitted that even at this late stage it is considering the four scenarios it announced at the end of June. The political opposition and the unions, meanwhile, have grown tired of asking questions and getting no replies.

Anger is also growing among the sector of society that will be most affected by how the new school year begins: teachers, school principals and parents, who still have no idea how they will have to organize their daily lives from September onward.

We have the feeling that they are taking us for a ride, that this is not being dealt with seriously nor with rigor
María Carmen Morillas, from the FAPA Francisco Giner de los Ríos parents association

“The sensation of chaos is tremendous,” says María Carmen Morillas, from the FAPA Francisco Giner de los Ríos parents association. And that’s no surprise. A total of 1.5 million school students in the region are preparing their school bags with no idea as to whether they will actually get back in the classroom. “They are playing with our health and education,” Morillas adds. “We have the feeling that they are taking us for a ride, that this is not being dealt with seriously nor with rigor.”

The leftist opposition groups the Socialist Party (PSOE), Unidas Podemos and Más Madrid all claim that the only strategy being employed by the regional administration is to “blame the [central] government for everything,” and that they are failing to come up with a plan. These parties all say they fear the worst for the upcoming year. The CCOO labor union has not ruled out calling a general strike for the teaching sector, or indeed resorting to the courts. “We are not going to keep quiet,” says Isabel Galvín, a CCOO representative. “The situation is unacceptable.”

Sonia P. has a four-year-old daughter and still has no idea whether or not classes will restart at her public school in the Madrid municipality of Majadahonda. And, of course, she has no idea of the conditions: how many students, the safety measures, the number of hours the will be spent in class, and what will happen if a coronavirus case is detected at the school. She is also concerned about her parents, whose help and support she needs to organize her day-to-day life. “They’re healthy, but you know, they’re older and the last thing I want to do is contribute to them going over to the other side,” she explains. “I don’t think that I will ask them to do pick-ups from the school this year, but, well, I don’t know… They say that they will, that they’re going to help me. But I don’t want…”

Sonia’s concerns are being echoed in WhatsApp groups all across the region. No one knows what is going to happen – in the capital city, as well as satellite towns such as Parla, Coslada, Getafe… The initial uncertainty has turned into anger. In general, parents want their children back in the classroom, “but in the right conditions.” The president of the FAPA Francisco Giner de los Ríos parents association says the same thing. “What you learn there you don’t learn at home, and what’s more, in the classroom you avoid inequality of opportunities.”

Sonia adds that her professional life depends on the regional government’s plans. She works in a dental surgery, and while her boss is sympathetic to her situation, and that of her colleagues with school-age children, she needs to get organized. “He’s going to ask us to have a number of options up our sleeves, but I’m not sure what kind of options I’m going to have,” she explains. “Either I stay at home or I go to work. There’s no other choice, because I can’t pay someone to stay with my little girl.”

As the pandemic has progressed, neither parents nor teachers believe that the school year can begin in these circumstances

At the beginning of July, Madrid’s education chief Enrique Ossorio was counting on the first of the four scenarios being possible. The idea was for the youngest students to stay in the bubble of their classes, with 25 students to a class (the same number prior to the pandemic). They would not have to wear masks given their young age (children as young as two will be starting school this September), and they would not come into contact with other classes. Older students would have to wear masks when social distancing is not possible and some classes would be given online.

But as the pandemic has progressed, neither parents nor teachers believe that the school year can begin in these circumstances. What’s more, the education chief warned that under this plan there would be no new teachers hired, nor would the ratios of classes be reduced.

“They are waging a war of nerves,” says Esteban Álvarez, the president of the Adimad association of public school principals in Madrid. He believes that the only way the new term can begin is with investment and good organization – i.e. that the regional government starts to spend the extra €260 million it has already received from the state for education. The amount is, however, far from the €421 to €981 million that CCOO estimated at the start of the summer would be needed to deal with the pandemic.

“So far no teachers have been hired,” explains Álvarez. “And we need a contingency plan. It’s an outrage that school principals are having to create a plan with the health measures. That should be done by medical experts.”

The opposition agrees with the complaints. “It’s intolerable and unacceptable for them not to have announced anything yet,” says María Pastor from Más Madrid, adding that the most sensible approach would be to opt for the second scenario, which involves classes of 20 for the youngest students, no canteen or recesses in the schoolyard, flexible timetables and the reduction by between a third and a half of the weekly class time for older students.

“I believe that in the end they will put this scenario into place but then they won’t have the capacity to look for staff or new spaces,” adds Tito Moreno, from Unidas Podemos. “Time has run out for them,” says Marta Bernardo from the PSOE.

Teachers, parents and unions fear that due to a lack of foresight, a third scenario will materialize: a complete lockdown, as was the case in March

When Ossorio announced this possible scenario a promise was made to hire 3,500 new members of staff, between teachers and administrative staff. But principals and unions estimate that around 11,000 hires would be necessary, as well as new spaces for classrooms, such as municipal buildings. Local councils in Parla, Coslada and Alcalá de Henares have offered their assistance to the regional administration, but have received no response.

The regional government has said that it is studying the experience of other countries, and that it wants to wait until the conclusions reached at the next meeting of regional premiers, which is due to take place at the end of August. The regional premier of Madrid, Isabel Díaz-Ayuso, has voiced her opinion that the central government should lead the process, rather than letting each region come up with its own approach. Meanwhile, teachers, parents and unions fear that due to a lack of foresight, a third scenario will materialize: a complete lockdown, as was the case in March.

The fourth scenario, they point out, was like a bad joke. It involved everyone returning to class as they did a year ago, as if the pandemic had never happened. But that joke, at this late stage, is not remotely funny for anyone.

Unions announce strike to coincide with the return to school in Madrid

Given the lack of plans from the Madrid regional government, and as such, no guarantee of a safe return to school for teachers and students given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the CCOO, UGT, CGT and STEM unions on Wednesday called strikes for the first days of the upcoming term in Madrid, and are not ruling out an indefinite stoppage. They hope, however, that a deal can be reached before then.

The demands of the unions include smaller classes, more teaching staff, the strengthening of cleaning services and new employees in the areas of administration and social integration.

“There needs to be a reversal of privatization policies in the Madrid education system and the diversion of public money into private hands needs to stop,” the four unions explained in a press release.

English version by Simon Hunter.

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