Spread of delta variant in Spain raises concern about school safety measures

Regional authorities are going ahead with protocol approved in May – which includes returning classes to pre-pandemic sizes – but some experts are worried more is needed to prevent transmission

Students in Valencia during the previous academic year.
Students in Valencia during the previous academic year.Mònica Torres

At the end of May, when the central government and regional authorities were planning the coronavirus security measures for the next academic year, no one had any idea that Spain would see a fifth wave of infections. At that point, the threat of the delta variant of the coronavirus was still unclear. But now, with one month before the return to school, the panorama has changed. The more contagious delta strain is now dominant in Spain and there are concerns about whether the current coronavirus safety measures – that do not include reducing class numbers – are enough.

So far, the regional governments are not considering changing the safety protocol approved in spring, as they confirmed to EL PAÍS. In May, central and regional authorities agreed that next academic year, classes would go back to having the same number of students as before the pandemic: up to 25 for early education (last school year the limit was 20) and 30 in primary school (up from 25). They also agreed to maintain the so-called class “bubble” system where groups of students stay together and do not interact with other people at school.

The delta variant is much more contagious and it will be dangerous. We will have to be much more alert to outbreaks
Quique Bassat, member of the Spanish Pediatric Association

The document approved by central and regional authorities also reduces the distance required between students at secondary schools from 1.5 meters to 1.2 meters. This measure had been called for by regional governments to ensure in-person learning for all pupils and reduce the cost of hiring additional teachers. Other rules will remain unchanged, according to the document. For the next academic year, which starts in early September, professors and students will still need to wear face masks, classrooms will continue to be ventilated and pupils will continue to enter and leave the school dining and play areas at different times to minimize social interaction.

But will this be enough? Health experts are divided. Spain is entering unknown territory, just as it was last September. But although there was concern then about what would happen when children returned to class after months of home learning due to the lockdown, Spain’s schools did not turn into vectors of infection. Instead the country achieved what few others managed – uninterrupted in-person learning, with the exception of just a few schools.

As for this September, it is likely most teenagers will have had at least one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine by the start of the new academic year. If everything goes to plan, the 12-19 age group will be fully vaccinated in the first few weeks of the month. But the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has yet to approve a Covid-19 vaccine for the under-12s, who account for 11% of the population.

Will this age group become a reservoir for the virus? Could infections among children spark a sixth wave just as cases among young people led to the fifth wave? So far, research shows that the large majority of coronavirus cases in children are minor or asymptomatic, and that children spread the virus less than adults. But epidemiologists are still erring on the side of caution, given that children are not vaccinated and the more contagious delta strain is now dominant.

Manuel Franco, the spokesperson for the Spanish Public Health Society, explained: “We were not expecting such a violent fifth wave. We don’t know with any certainty if children can spark a new wave from the bottom upwards [in age], although last year this wasn’t the case.” In his opinion, returning class sizes to what they were before the pandemic is a mistake: “The delta variant is much more contagious, let’s see if we are doing it the wrong way round, and it is now when we should be reducing [classes] even more.”

Quique Bassat, a member of the Spanish Pediatric Association (AEP), who has advised the government and the regions on the new safety measures, is also concerned about possible outbreaks. “The delta variant is much more contagious and it will be dangerous. We will have to be much more alert to outbreaks. We have to underscore that if a child has symptoms, even if they are mild, they must not come to school.”

We cannot have millions of unvaccinated kids indoors without good ventilation
Jeffrey Lazarus, from the ISGlobal Health Institute

Ángel Hernández Merino, a member of the Vaccine Advisory Committee at AEP, however, is more optimistic about the next school year, arguing the vaccination of the 12-19 age group will help prevent contagions. “Teenagers have very different social behavior to children, it’s more similar to adults, but without their capacity for control. The fact that the vaccination drive is progressing with them gives us a degree of calm,” he said.

Jeffrey Lazarus, from the ISGlobal Health Institute, adds that ventilation in classrooms is also crucial to preventing outbreaks. “In September, we have to ventilate a lot. [...] Children are going to be inside and with the cold, they are not going to open the windows. We cannot have millions of unvaccinated kids indoors without good ventilation,” he explained.

According to the document approved in May, the coronavirus safety measures can be toughened and eased depending on the risk level in each region. If the situation improves and Spain reaches the so-called “new normality” on the Health Ministry’s traffic light system, some of the restrictions can be lifted, for example, students in a class bubble can spend time in outdoor play areas with members of another bubble of the same age. Under this system, an area is classified as having entered the new normality if the 14-day cumulative number of cases per 100,000 inhabitants is below 25 and Covid-19 patients occupy less than 5% of intensive care beds, among other factors. According to the latest Health Ministry report, released Friday, the national incidence rate stands at 591 cases per 100,000, while 8.48% of ICU beds are occupied by Covid-19 patients.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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