As schools reopen in Spain, how will the coronavirus affect the youngest students?

Educators and parents are divided over the benefits of sending preschoolers to class amid a nationwide resurgence of Covid-19 cases

Cleaners working in a classroom at San Juan school in Murcia as part of the new coronavirus routine.
Cleaners working in a classroom at San Juan school in Murcia as part of the new coronavirus routine.EFE
Ignacio Zafra

With just a few days left before schools are due to reopen across Spain, there is growing concern about the conditions that students and educators will find themselves in amid a nationwide resurgence in coronavirus cases.

The youngest children – those aged three, four and five, for whom schooling is not compulsory although most Spanish parents enrol their kids – will not be wearing face masks while in class, following the experts’ recommendations.

At a time of their lives when learning is mostly based on touch and on physical experiences, children will not be given hard-to-clean materials such as plasticine. And teachers – many of whom will have to wear face coverings following regional regulations – must work out class routines that involve less group-based work.

In these classrooms, viruses are in constant circulation, and it will be difficult to differentiate Covid-19 from a common cold
Sara Quiroga, Madrid school teacher

Yet few people believe that such young kids will be able to keep the social distance of 1.5 meters between themselves and other students and teachers. For these preschoolers, experts have devised a “bubble” system consisting of stable groups of students and teachers who will not be in contact with other groups at school. This solution has been tested with some success in other countries, but questions remain about its effectiveness because of the class sizes – up to 25 students – and because of the risk of contagion from contacts outside of school.

No extra resources

With a little over a week to go before classes start in Andalusia, the regional government has not allocated any additional resources to the Pinolivo public school in Marbella, which has 228 early-education students, the school principal notes.

“Anyone who is familiar with the early-education system will know that in September, you can come across children who have been crying nonstop for five hours, and who may even start vomiting from separation anxiety,” says Graciela Romero.

“We normally ask parents to stay in class with them for the first few days to reduce the children’s anxiety and get them to trust the teachers, but we can’t do that now,” adds the school principal. “There will be a period of time when we will have 25 students, many of them in tears, inside a 50-square-meter space.”

In spite of this, Romero and other educators queried by this newspaper said that it is essential to reopen schools, and that they are planning to hold the children in their arms when they consider it necessary.

“One of the pillars of this stage of education is emotions. We will implement all hygiene and safety measures, but it is impossible to keep a distance, because that would lead to significant emotional deficiencies for the children,” says Romero. “If we had more space and more teachers the risk would be lower, but that costs money.”

Covid or the common cold?

Schools have a protocol in place for suspected Covid cases. But in early education, detecting cases will be a tough job.

“In these classrooms, viruses are in constant circulation, and it will be difficult to differentiate Covid-19 from a common cold,” says Sara Quiroga, who teaches at a Madrid school. “There are children with bronchiolitis, others who are coughing due to laryngitis...We’ll see how we deal with it, because I don’t know whether such young children are going to be tested for Covid-19 over just a mild fever.”

Quiroga is also concerned about her own mother, who has a depressed immune system. “I won’t be able to visit her for a long time out of fear that I may be an asymptomatic carrier,” she notes. “I don’t work in an office where I can take measures to protect myself: I work with little children who have other contacts outside the school.”

While scientists have been producing relatively good news about children’s transmission rates, María José Mellado, the president of the Spanish Pediatrics Association, is calling for caution.

“What we know so far is that their transmission capacity is lower, especially among children under 10. But these studies have been conducted in specific situations such as open-air summer camps, and even if the risk of transmission is low, it is there, and we should avoid breaking the closed groups outside of school. Having said that, we believe children need to go back to class.”

Meanwhile, families are split about the benefits and risks of taking their children back to school. “I know he needs to be with other kids again, but at the same time I don’t know how they’re going to handle it, or what we will do if there is a positive case in his class and he has to quarantine,” says Lucía Durbán, a doctor from Valencia about her three-year-old son.

Economic reasons

“Preschool education is not so important in terms of the curriculum, but firstly because it has an economic function,” says Dino Salinas, who teaches didactic methods and school organization at Valencia University.

“Parents need to go to work and have someone to take care of their kids. And school is an ideal place for that, because it is normally a safe space in emotional terms, a place where children are looked after, where they learn routines, find friends with similar experiences to their own, and where they are guaranteed good nutrition, which may be a fundamental issue for some segments of society.”

English version by Susana Urra.

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