Spain issues new guidelines for safe return to school in the fall

Distance between students is reduced from two to 1.5 meters, but classrooms may accommodate no more than 20 children

Young students in school last March.
Young students in school last March.Mònica Torres
Ignacio Zafra

The Spanish government has made changes to its guidelines for a safe return to school in September, when the country will be under the “new normality” following a prolonged coronavirus lockdown and deescalation process.

After months of remote learning due to nationwide school closures, students will go back to classrooms adapted to the new situation, which means smaller class sizes, more hygiene measures, and face masks when safety distances cannot be observed.

But the decree regulating the “new normality” and published on Wednesday in the Official State Gazette has reduced the safety distance between students from two meters to 1.5 meters.

A student preparing for exams at home during the coronavirus pandemic.
A student preparing for exams at home during the coronavirus pandemic.Marta Monzón (EFE)

The Education Ministry also said that in early education – for children ages three through five – and for students in the first four years of primary school, classrooms may hold groups of up to 20 children, instead of the 15 originally recommended. The ministry adds that 15 is still the “ideal” number.

Students in these lower grades will make up self-contained groups that will not have to observe the physical distancing rules that apply to older students.

Education centers will have to use all available space, including the library if necessary, in order to ensure distances are respected. And if this is not enough, they may request additional support from local authorities, said Education Minister Isabel Celaá in an interview on the radio station SER Catalunya.

The document setting out these and other guidelines was drafted by the health and education ministers, and will be presented on Thursday at a meeting of central and regional education chiefs. The goal, said the government, is to establish a strategy with widespread consensus.

Fresh air

The protocol establishes that children up to 10 years of age may “socialize without maintaining a strict personal distance” because it is believed that this would be very difficult for them to achieve. Instead, these classes will mix as little as possible with other students in the school, in order to make it easier to trace any potential cases of Covid-19. The use of face masks will not be compulsory for these grades.

Fifth and sixth graders will be asked to wear face masks when it is not possible to keep a distance of 1.5 meters, but not when they are sitting at their desks. The document also recommends using open-air spaces as much as possible for educational activities.

Classroom windows must remain open “as long as possible” throughout the day, and classrooms must be ventilated before and after classes. Centers must be cleaned and disinfected at least once a day, while bathrooms must undergo similar cleaning three times a day.

Class size

The maximum number of students to a classroom in the last two years of primary school, as well as in secondary and in post-secondary education, will depend on their size. Back when the government was talking about a two-meter distance, some centers had determined that they could accommodate no more than 12 students per classroom. Now that figure could go up to 15, and even higher if gyms and cafeterias are converted into classrooms.

At least seven regional governments have been working to ensure that all their younger students can go back to school in the fall, as they believe that remote learning is not working out well for them. This opinion is shared by teachers’ unions, as well as numerous school principals and education experts. The latter have warned that remotely learning is particularly harmful on children from low-income families.

Every school will have to draft a plan for the start of the new academic year, and protocols to deal with potential new outbreaks. Centers will designate a “person of reference for all aspects relating to Covid-19.” The government guidelines also recommend the creation of “a team comprising various representatives of the education community, to guarantee that everyone stays informed and that principles are being observed.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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