The suspension of classes came after Spain was caught off guard by a tripling of cases in just 48 hours, with everything from nursery schools to universities closed Wednesday in a move reportedly affecting 1.5 million youngsters.
Madrid has borne the brunt of the outbreak with more than 1,000 infections and 31 deaths, the vast majority among the elderly.
But the closure poses a worrying new complication in Spain, where family solidarity is strong and grandparents are often very involved in looking after their grandchildren in a culture where working hours can be long and state-sponsored childcare is non-existent.
“I will always help out (my daughter) as much as I can,” says Millan, who is playing with his four-year-old grandson Isan at the city's Retiro park.
“My wife is cross that I've taken him out. She wanted me to stay shut up at home with him,” he told AFP.
“I'm not afraid of the virus, but she is.”
Since the COVID-19 epidemic began in China, it has been the elderly who are most vulnerable to the effects of the virus.
Last week, Madrid health officials closed elderly day-care centres after a cluster of infections, with a top health official suggesting it was unwise for children to stay with their grandparents.
And on Wednesday, he said that although children barely showed symptoms of the virus, they were “spreading it within society”.
'They're my grandchildren'
“It worries me but they say children have less chance of getting it. But these are my grandchildren, I have to look after them, don't I,” said Jose Luis Lucas, 70, who was taking his granddaughters to a holiday home just outside Madrid for the next two weeks.
“We will just have to avoid too many hugs and kisses.”
According to a 2018 study, one in four Spanish grandparents take care of their grandchildren every day of the week, while 40 percent are involved several days a week, doing the school run and feeding them.
The school closure puts these grandparents on the frontline.
“Families have to take care of the children, and above all that's the grandparents,” sighs Emilio Salvador, 67, who is reading a story to his grandson Jorge on a park bench.
“There are very few people who can (work from home),” says Salvador who will be looking after Jorge for the next two weeks.
“(By closing schools) they are trying to deal with the situation, but it just passes the problem on to the people.”
'Just one more burden'
Shutting the schools has unleashed a wave of black humour on social media.
“Millions of grandparents across Madrid have just disconnected their phones,” read one message doing the rounds on Whatsapp, which is extremely popular in Spain.
“The school closure announcement has killed more grandparents than coronavirus,” read another.
For Paloma Alonso, 72, having to look after her five- and seven-year-old grandchildren for the next fortnight is no walk in the park.
“It's just one more burden adding to what I already deal with every day,” she sighs.
“I am a grandmother who adores her grandchildren but I don't like looking after them every day. But I will always help my daughter.”
Many others are doing the same, with 78-year-old Javier Costero taking in his four grandchildren, aged seven to 10, for almost the entire fortnight — although he was well prepared for it.
“We knew it was coming after seeing what has happened in Italy,” he told AFP.
“But they aren't doing things right here. They should have done this before now.”
By AFP's Emmanuelle Michel
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