Many parents keeping children at home due to coronavirus spike in Spain’s schools

The situation in the country’s education centers is the worst it has been since they reopened in September 2020, with a record number of outbreaks recorded in December

Students at Antonio Machado elementary school in Valencia.
Students at Antonio Machado elementary school in Valencia.Mònica Torres

Spain’s schools will this week be ending the current semester in the most complicated situation seen since they reopened in September 2020. This month has beaten all records in terms of coronavirus outbreaks among students, and they have been mostly focused among the youngest children rather than being spread out between different ages. Thanks to the widespread vaccination of teenagers in Spain, high schools are weathering this sixth wave of the pandemic better. The vaccination of children aged five to 12 is only just getting underway in the country.

Given the situation, many parents have decided not to send their children to school, starting their vacations early in a bid to avoid infections or the lockdown of an entire bubble group – both of which would mean spending the Christmas holiday under home isolation. In some schools, principals themselves have called on parents to keep their children at home for these last days of the semester.

The biggest federation of student family associations, Ceapa, has warned that such a decision will take its toll on children from an educational point of view, as well as cause problems for parents in terms of balancing work responsibilities and childcare. The main teachers’ union, CCOO, has called for measures that were in place during the previous academic year – i.e. smaller class sizes and extra teaching staff – to be reintroduced.

The approach needed, according to epidemiologist and pediatrician Quique Bassat, involves “scrupulously following the rules and prevention measures that worked very well in schools and that have been relaxed in recent months.” This is because the vaccination of the under-12s will take at least two months to have a significant impact in schools. The cumulative incidence among the under-11s continues to be the highest of all age groups, with 777 cases per 100,000 inhabitants over 14 days, compared to the national average of 609.

Until this month, the record number of coronavirus outbreaks in schools was seen in the first week of February, when there were 413 with a total of 2,570 associated cases. These were mostly in the secondary education system, according to Health Ministry data. In the second week of December, meanwhile, there were 463 outbreaks with 2,968 cases, and this time the vast majority were detected in elementary schools.

Given the spike in cases and with the semester practically over, many families have decided not to bring their children
Fran Lires, the president of the association of elementary school principals in Galicia

The number of outbreaks fell to 334 by December 17, with 1,979 associated cases, but the number of students isolating continued to rise. Eight of Spain’s regions reported at the end of the week having more than 1% of their students confined, when seven days before only six regions did so.

The data from the start of this week are even worse. Catalonia, which publishes daily information on the impact of Covid-19, reported that the number of students in quarantine has gone from 25,050 a week ago to 60,125 on Monday, and that quarantines were affecting 4% of students.

The main indicator used until now for getting an idea of the effect of the pandemic in schools, that of confined classes, is no longer of any great use. This is because some of Spain’s regions have changed the way they count these locked-down groups.

In Catalonia, for example, whose schools are going through a particularly difficult moment, the number of classes in quarantine is very low (0.33%). But this is because a group is not considered confined – even if all students are isolating at home – when their teacher is still attending school, something that staff have been able to do until now if they are vaccinated and test negative.

“These weeks are the most complicated so far,” explains Fran Lires, the president of the association of elementary school principals in Galicia. “Given the spike in cases and with the semester practically over, many families have decided not to bring [their children]. At my school and those around, the figure has been around 40% [absences].”

The attitude of parents varies greatly from region to region and from school to school. The president of elementary school principals in Aragón, Enrique Civera, says that the week has started normally at his school “The children have come like always and the same ones have used the canteen,” he explains.

In Valencia, the president of the association of principals, Joaquina Barba, also says that absenteeism ahead of Christmas has been negligible. “There have been some cases, but nothing excessive, there has been no stampede,” she explains.

We were thinking, ‘What if he gets infected for the sake of three days at school and we can’t go and see his grandparents’
Sonia, mother of a child in elementary school

At the school of Jorge Delgao, the president of elementary school principals in Andalusia, around 15% of the students were absent on Monday, but for a range of reasons. “A number of things have come together,” he explains. “There are children who are isolating, because they tested positive or are close contacts. Others have been vaccinated and parents have preferred to leave them at home after they’ve had a minor reaction. And then a small percentage have not come because they’ve said, ‘Given there are two or three days left, we’re not going to risk it’.”

In Madrid, meanwhile, a sensation of “chaos” in the healthcare system, according to CCOO teaching head in Madrid, Isabel Galvín, has prompted many families to keep their children at home. This feeling is being caused by a rise in cases and the difficulties of getting in touch with the healthcare system to report symptoms.

This is the case of Sonia, the mother of a child in elementary school. “We were thinking, ‘What if he gets infected for the sake of three days at school and we can’t go and see his grandparents, who live in another city, for Christmas?’ It’s a shame, but we can keep him at home, because we can work from home and we have someone who looks after him, so that’s what we’ve done. With all the infections that are happening, it would be easy for the kid to catch it. Or for someone from his class to do so. If that happened, we would all have to isolate for 10 days.”

In the case of the Palacio Valdés de Madrid public elementary school, the principal sent out a letter to families, explains Carlos García, the president of the parents’ association. Given the rise in cases, the missive reads, “we request that you consider the convenience or otherwise of bringing children to school.”

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