Coronavirus rules in Spain’s schools: Does a vaccinated student have to quarantine if there is a positive case in their bubble?

EL PAÍS reviews the measures currently in place, the school procedure for dealing with a Covid-19 infection and whether parents have the right to paid leave if their child has to self-isolate

Alto Cidacos public school in the Spanish region of La Rioja.
Alto Cidacos public school in the Spanish region of La Rioja.Javier Hernández

The coronavirus is now spreading most among the under-12 population in Spain, and this is translating into an increase in cases at schools. It’s a moderate rise, with global figures indicating that the impact of this on the pandemic is still low. According to the Education Ministry, just 0.38% of classes are in quarantine, compared to the peak of 1.5% reached during last school year. What’s more, experts say that the vaccination of children between the ages of five and 11, which will begin on December 15, will have a positive impact on the outlook.

But the low global figures are of little comfort to the thousands of families whose lives are turned upside down every week due to quarantines in education centers. Between November 29 and December 3, more than 50,000 students were having to isolate. Many of these class quarantines are due to outbreaks at their schools, according to epidemiologist Quique Bassat.

Here is a review of the safety measures currently in place to fight the pandemic in schools, the process that must be followed if a case has been detected, and what options families have in the case of a class quarantine.

What are bubble groups?

The general protocol has maintained the so-called “bubble group” in early childhood education (for students up to three years of age) and elementary schools (six to 11) for the current academic year. This measure is aimed at preventing contact with other students and reducing contagions. However, students in fifth and sixth grade (10 to 11) in elementary school can also opt for the minimum distance option established for older grades, such as secondary school, Bachillerato (14 to 17) and vocational training (FP). Under this system, desks must be separated by 1.5 meters, which may be reduced to 1.2 meters – a lighter restriction that will be applied by most of Spain’s regions. If the health situation deteriorates much more (to levels 3 and 4 on the Health Ministry’s traffic light system), 1.5 meters will be the minimum distance for students in the third and fourth year of secondary school and those completing their Bachillerato. The possibility of returning to partial home learning will also be on the table. This school year, bubble groups can be larger: with up to 25 students in early childhood education and 30 in primary schools.

Must vaccinated students quarantine if there is a case in their bubble?

The answer is no, but there are caveats. Both the general rules and the government guide on Covid-19 cases in schools state that close contacts of a positive case do not have to quarantine if they are vaccinated. This rule has been in force this school year for students in secondary school, most of whom have been fully immunized, and also applies to school teachers who are vaccinated. The rule will now be extended to students between the ages of five and 11 who have received both doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine. Students who have recovered from Covid-19 in the past six months, meaning they have natural immunity, are also exempt from having to quarantine.

The protocols, however, include exceptions. Students with suppressed immune systems must quarantine even if they are fully vaccinated. Close contacts of a positive case caused by the omicron, beta or gamma variant of the coronavirus (or any other strain considered a variant of concern by authorities) must also self-isolate. In a bubble group, all the class members are considered close contacts. Sources from the Health Ministry add that these guidelines, which the regions have adapted to their territories, are regularly reviewed.

For the vaccinated students who are close contacts of a positive case, but who have not had to quarantine, the Health Ministry protocols state that they must take two coronavirus tests. One must be taken as soon as the positive case has been detected, and another “around seven days after the last contact with the confirmed case.” The guidelines recommend that they avoid contact with at-risk groups, not attend large events, wear a face mask when socializing, limit their contacts to “those groups with whom they normally interact with at school” and be alert to the “possible appearance of compatible symptoms.”

Who are close contacts?

Apart from the family members who live in the same home, all the members of a student’s bubble group are close contacts. As is everyone in the school who has had contact with the suspected positive case, i.e. they have been less than two meters from the person, without a face mask, or using it incorrectly. In the case of patients with confirmed coronavirus infections, it is not necessary for them to take a diagnostic test before returning to class. For close contacts, it is recommended but not mandatory.

How long does a student have to be in quarantine for?

If a suspected coronavirus case is confirmed, the student must not go to school and must remain in self-isolation until they have passed three days without symptoms, and a minimum of 10 days since the beginning of their symptoms. Their unvaccinated close contacts must also remain in quarantine for 10 days from their last contact with the positive case.

What happens if there is an outbreak at a school?

If three or more related cases are detected in the same school, it is considered an outbreak. At that moment, the organization designated to handle outbreaks in each region will assess the situation. The measures that must be implemented range, depending on the gravity of the outbreak, from increasing preventive rules and isolating cases to quarantining schools, entire years and even the whole school, although this last measure is rarely required. On November 26, for example, only three schools of the 29,058 registered by the Education Ministry were closed.

A student in a school in Cantabria.
A student in a school in Cantabria. EUROPA PRESS (Europa Press)

Is the use of masks still obligatory in Spanish schools?

Masks are obligatory in general in schools for students aged six and above, according to the protocol agreed on by the central government and the regions. They can be removed in certain circumstances, such as the consumption of food and drink, and when outside provided social distancing can be observed. Their use during physical education classes and recess varies from region to region. For example, in the Valencia region, they are not obligatory during gym class, but they are at breaktime. In Catalonia, they are not necessary at recess if students are with their own classmates. In Madrid, the regional authorities approved not enforcing mask-wearing during recess, but most schools opted not to adopt this measure.

How are Covid cases managed in schools?

Teachers and students must stay away from school if they have Covid-19 symptoms: fever, a cough, a sensation of a lack of air, fatigue or diarrhea. The issue of body temperature caused some controversy last year, given that not all of Spain’s regions set the same limit. For example, the Basque Country would not allow people in to schools if they were above 37ºC, while in Madrid and Extremadura the bar was set at 37.2ºC. In any case, if the school in question detects any symptoms in a student during the school day, they are taken to a separate area until their parents or tutors can collect them and take them home. There, they must remain in isolation until they have the results of a coronavirus test. Teachers with symptoms must follow the same procedure. Fellow students and their teachers will continue to go to class as normal until the results arrive.

Do I have the right to paid leave to take care of my child in quarantine?

According to Jesús Lahera, a law and social security professor at Madrid’s Complutense University, the simple answer is no. There is a path, albeit an ever-narrower one, that can be taken, and that has been used for months now by parents. The process is for the father or mother to take leave due to a temporary incapacity to work on the basis that they are obliged to quarantine given that they are a close contact of a child. However, given that such a high proportion of Spain’s adult population is vaccinated, and the fact that fully vaccinated parents do not have to isolate if their child tests positive, this option is practically off the table now. If the child becomes sicker and needs to be hospitalized, labor law already permits parents to take leave. In the case of preventive quarantine, that’s to say, if the child is a close contact of classmates who have tested positive, there are no options for the parent to take paid leave.

Are there any special measures for these cases?

The government has extended the Mecuida plan until 2022. This allows employees who need to take care of a child in quarantine to request that their working day be adapted to the circumstances, or indeed reduced up to 100% with the corresponding reduction in salary. Among the changes permitted are different shifts, flexible hours, home working or a change in responsibilities. While this is established in the legislation as a right, it is not automatically granted – the company can refuse, on the basis that it “must be justified and be reasonable and proportionate in terms of the company’s situation.” What does that mean? That if the company refuses, the only option is to go to the courts, who must urgently rule on the case. Is that happening in practice? According to Emilia de Sousa, from Sousa Abogados, writing on his website around a year ago, “companies are not throwing up many obstacles for the reduction [of working hours], but this is a luxury, a privilege, that a working-class country eminently cannot allow,” given the accompanying loss of income. And in the case of adapting working conditions, if the company refuses, the matter must go to court.

Are there alternatives for the Mecuida plan?

The care of children with mild illness is a problem that has affected families since long before the arrival of Covid-19. Jesús Lahera points out that many work agreements already allow for specific leave for these cases (paid or otherwise) or personal days. Once again, the flexibility and discretion of the company in question will depend on whether this can be applied to quarantines for a minor who is not sick. Some companies also allow for the possibility of requesting brief leaves of absence for the 10 days that the quarantine lasts.

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