What students think about going back to school amid the health crisis

Twelve children and teenagers from Spain discuss how they feel about face masks, social distancing and class bubbles – and what politicians got wrong when dealing with the coronavirus crisis

From left to right; Lara, 11, Raquel, 16, María, 13 and Víctor, 17.
From left to right; Lara, 11, Raquel, 16, María, 13 and Víctor, 17.SANTI BURGOS / Javier Álvarez

Eight million Spanish children are going back to school on a year when some regional governments have pushed back the start date to better prepare against Covid-19. While most kids started classes this week, the first day of school for Catalan children will be September 14, and for those in the Canary Islands it will be September 15.

While adults continue to discuss how best to manage the situation, the students themselves are clear about their priorities and are putting forward solutions such as free play, choosing their bubble group, face masks for the older children only, outdoor classes, and guaranteed sports activities.

Among their complaints, two stand out: nobody has bothered to consult them, and the politicians have taken bewildering decisions. A group of 12 students between the ages of seven and 17 shared their thoughts on the return to school.

Blas Tejada, seven, and Leo Tejada, 12. Madrid: “They took a long time to close the schools and a long time to open them”

What most concerns Blas Tejada, seven, is how to social distance while playing at the San Cristóbal state-run primary school in Madrid. “I have several games in mind,” he says. “We could see who is first to blink or laugh, or we could have races without touching each other and time ourselves – my watch can do that, you know. And there are lots more games, but please let them allow us out in the playground.”

Blas has spent the entire summer thinking about how to play safely because he’s scared of going back to school. During the height of the pandemic, the father of one of his classmates died of coronavirus and he doesn’t want to pass on any infection to his own father, who has asthma.

His brother Leo, 12, is starting secondary school this year. “It was very sad to leave school in March and not be able to say goodbye; not to the school or to my friends or the teachers,” he says. “Who knows what classmates I will get now. They should let us choose so we can be with our friends, because we have to keep our distance from the people in other classes.”

Leo pictures the isolation room reserved for students suspected of carrying Covid-19 as a cell with a lock and he thinks that, when it comes to going back to the classroom, the politicians are getting everything wrong. “They took ages closing the schools and they took ages reopening them,” he says. “It’s not very realistic to think that six-year-olds are going to wear a mask for eight hours. And we should be outside almost all the time, both for learning and playing. They are thinking about having alternate days for breaks or getting rid of them altogether. Days without going into the playground! What are they thinking? If they don’t let us play, we’ll go crazy.”

Siblings David Pinel, seven, and Rosalía Pinel, 14. Puebla de Montalbán, Toledo. “We are worried about outbreaks”

David, who is seven, is worried that the safety measures will not be taken seriously and that the country will go back into lockdown. “I really want to go back to school, but I am worried about outbreaks,” he says and reels off everything that needs to be done to avoid fresh spikes. When it comes to wearing the mask, he says that “it’s for keeping me and others safe” and that he’s happy to wear it.

David’s favorite part of the summer was the Celestina theater festival in his town, Puebla de Montalbán in Toledo, where he has started to mix with other kids. “Although I don’t really get the thing about speaking loudly to friends so we don’t have to stand close because of the social distancing,” he says.

David’s sister is more concerned than he is about the situation. “School is not going to last long because there are a lot of people who want to be cool and do not respect any of the measures,” she says, adding that she doesn’t want to think about the bubbles “because my friends don’t go to my class and we have to mix just with our group.” If there is another lockdown, she hopes it will be better coordinated because it was very “disorganized.”

Martina Alonso, 11, Lara Jiménez, 11, and Aimar Palomares, 10. Lozoyuela rural school, Madrid. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to smile and get angry just with my eyes”

Aimar Palomares is annoyed because his return to school has been delayed by 10 days. “I’m jealous of my brothers… I’m so excited to get back… Isn’t six months long enough without school? And if there are outbreaks among older people, does that mean we won’t go back?”

Aimar, 10, is in fifth grade but he shares a classroom with the sixth-graders at the Lozoyuela rural school, located 70 kilometers to the north of Madrid. When it comes to using the mask, he’s worried no one will understand him. “Words can be seen too, not just heard,” he says. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to smile or get angry just with my eyes. And I’m going to miss the hugs.”

He’s also worried that if he has a slight temperature from fatigue, it might get mistaken for Covid. “How are they going to know the difference?” he says. “I’ll miss class for nothing.” And if there’s another lockdown? “Terrible. It’s been a disaster. I hope they’ll let us have a lot of the classes outdoors so it doesn’t happen again.”

An aspiring archeologist or biologist, Aimar would like to send this message to politicians: “They should decide together and learn from animals. Snails, for example. They go slow, they’re patient and they get where they want to go, but we are rushing. If snails could speak, they would tell us to wait and decide calmly and safely; that there’s time for everything.”

The sixth-graders Martina Alonso and Lara Jiménez, both 11, are Aimar’s classmates at the Lozoyuela school. Neither one of them likes the mask. “Is it healthy to be breathing in so much carbon dioxide?” wonders Lara. They’re worried too that they won’t able to keep doing group projects and they’re cross that they can’t mix with the smaller children. “My school is like a family,” says Martina. “We learn a lot from the little ones.”

Both girls would like to wake up and find that it has all been a nightmare. They believe that politicians have not bothered to listen to students before making decisions. “Maybe they don’t have children of their own and that’s why they are confused,” says Lara.

Camino Asensio, 13. Alcañiz, Teruel. “It’s going to be chaos with all the little children exchanging masks”

“I’m keen to get back so I can experience the new reality in my school and at my scout group, but I think it’s going to be chaos with all the little children exchanging masks,” jokes Camino Asensio, 13, who goes to the state-subsidized private school of La Inmaculada in Alcañiz (Teruel).

She thinks politicians should have been stricter during the summer. “That way, we could have gone back safely but it’s too late now,” she says. When it comes to spikes, however, she does not think they will happen at school. “We’ll be safe there,” she says. “If we’ve been to the beach and to outdoor restaurants… we should also go to school and they are going to look after us there. We will keep going for as long as we can, until they send us back home and then it will be horrible again. I feel like I’ve been on holiday for six months and that’s hard.”

Víctor Muñoz, 13, and Raquel Sánchez, 16. Velilla de San Antonio, Madrid. “If there is so much infection, going back doesn’t seem very safe”

As far as Víctor Muñoz, 13, is concerned, “it would be better to forget” the last school term altogether. A student at at school in Velilla de San Antonio in the Madrid region, he spent lockdown with his five siblings, his uncles and aunts and his cousin, all of whom shared two computers. When they shut the school, he switched off. “It was a mistake,” he says. “They should have tried a semi in-person alternative because I became totally unmotivated and lost, and I’ve had to repeat the year.”

Although he is now ready to start his first year of secondary education all over again, he is concerned about how safe it will be and thinks the return is being rushed. “If there is so much infection, going back doesn’t seem very safe. Or maybe they should open just half the time,” he says.

Raquel Sánchez, 16, is starting her fourth year of secondary education. She would have preferred it if she had been able to go back to school in May. “I had a bad end of term,” she says. “You learn less and work more. It seemed so long and we missed out on a lot, and now we’re going back when the situation is worse than ever.”

She is worried that some teenagers don’t take distancing and the mask seriously, and she doesn’t understand why physical education has been scrapped as well as break times in secondary schools, both of which she considers less risky than being inside a classroom. “If they put us in lockdown again, at least they should keep the schools open for people who need it,” she says.

Víctor Hernando, 17. Valladolid. “I’m worried that the system is not prepared for the switch back to online classes”

“I’m worried that the instructions [from the education authorities] are a bit incoherent,” says Víctor Hernando, 17. “They are going in blindly, without knowing if the measures will be enough or not. And though they’ve told us we will have in-person classes, it’s not clear whether we will be able to keep that going for long or whether the system is prepared for the switch back to online classes.”

Víctor is starting his Baccalaureate at a public school in Valladolid and he doesn’t believe they’ll be in school for long. At his high school, they are going to cut out any sport that involves contact, and during the breaks they will have to maintain a distance from students who are not in the same class. “You get the feeling that it’s going to be more like a hospital than a school,” he says. “And I don’t think that will help us to focus on our studies. They should have consulted the students when they were working out the return.”

María Saugar, 13. Alcalá de Henares, Madrid. “I don’t know what I’ll do if they take away my sports”

María Saugar, 13, is keen to get back to school but she is worried that sports activities are being reduced and extra curricular subjects as well – she doesn’t know when she’ll be able to go back to scouts.

“I usually play basketball during breaks and soccer in the afternoon, and I don’t know what I’ll do if they take away my sports,” she says. A student at the public school Alkal’a Nahar in Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, she believes that social distancing is going to be impossible. “If your friends aren’t in your class, what do you do?” she asks, adding that if there is another lockdown, “video calls with teachers to sort out problems should be mandatory, and the school should stay open for people who need it.”

English version by Heather Galloway.

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