FOCUS: Is Spain ready to send its children back to school?

With coronavirus cases surging as a new school year begins, many Spanish parents are refusing to send their children back to class despite the threat of sanctions.

FOCUS: Is Spain ready to send its children back to school?
Teachers attend a safety briefing at the Miguel de Cervantes school ahead of its reopening for a new academic year amid the coronavirus pandemic in Ronda. Photos: AFP

“You have your whole life to learn, but if you lose your health, that's it,” says Aroa Miranda, a 37-year-old mother-of-two who won't send her boys to school this week when term resumes in the coastal town of Castellon de la Plana.   

Like its European neighbours, Spain is reopening schools this month despite the rapid spread of the virus, with the country counting the highest number of new infections on the continent.

“Going back to school is being treated like an experiment, we're like guinea pigs,” said Miranda, who is about to take her three-year-old off the nursery school list, which is voluntary at his age.

“For my eight-year-old, I will pretend he's ill so I don't have to send him to school.”   

Although masks are obligatory in school for anyone aged six and over and social distancing measures have been put in place, she doesn't think it's enough.

“If I can't meet with more than 10 people in my home, I don't understand why my son has to be in class with 25 children,” she railed.   

“This is an absurd safety risk.”

READ ALSO: How the pandemic could change Spanish way of working life forever

'Risk-free doesn't exist'

For weeks now, there have been a growing number of protests and petitions across Spain to demand better health and safety measures in schools.   

An international Ipsos poll in July found most Spanish parents would back limiting the number of days children are in school, with one in four preferring to wait four to six months before sending them back.

In the face of the concerns, the authorities have swung between assurances of safety and threats of sanctions.

“Going back to school is safe,” Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said Tuesday.    

“It's clear that 'risk-free' does not exist during an epidemic but there is a risk that we can avoid: that of social exclusion through not going to school.”

Fernando Simón, the health ministry's emergencies coordinator, said nowhere was risk-free and that children could catch the virus in the park, from their cousins or through an adult who caught it at work.

“We can't keep our children in a bubble,” he said, in remarks echoed this weekend by Education Minister Isabel Celaa.

“The safest place to be is in school and the benefits of being there are far greater than the possible risks,” she told Spain's RNE public radio.   

Many fear sending their children to school will put older family members at risk in a country where one in four families live with a relative who is over 65.

“I want to respect the law but if I have to choose between saving their lives or the lives of my parents, and sending my children back to school, it's a no-brainer,” father-of-five Pablo Sanchez told AFP.

Elena Sanchez (L) and her husband Pablo Sanchez (3L) pose with their children Laura (2L), Chechu (BOTTOM), Amelia (3R), Jorge (2R) and Carolina (R) at their home in Madrid.


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'Let them fine me'

Others fear the economic impact if a child falls ill.   

“If we have to confine ourselves at home for 15 days because of the school, my husband would not earn anything,” Miranda said.   

The social security ministry has raised the possibility of extending a furlough scheme for parents forced to observe a period of preventative quarantine.

But reluctant families could technically face much heavier sanctions of “between one and three years in jail”, the Madrid region's education chief warned last month.

It remains unclear to what extent the authorities will follow the letter of the law.

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“That is the question everyone is asking now,” said Pedro Caballero, head of a Catholic parents' association looking into the situation, which is fraught with legal uncertainties.   

The education minister has also requested a study on the use of sanctions, without ruling them out.

“I must remind families that education is a human right for pupils, not for their parents. And the authorities are obliged to see this is respected between the ages of six and 16,” she told El Pais newspaper.

Miranda is not deterred.   

“If they want to come to my home to fine me, then they fine me, my children are what is most important to me,” she said.

By AFP's Thomas Perroteau 



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Spain rules out EU’s advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 

Spain’s Health Ministry said Thursday there will be no mandatory vaccination in the country following the European Commission’s advice to Member States to “think about it” and Germany’s announcement that it will make vaccines compulsory in February.

Spain rules out EU's advice on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination 
A Spanish man being vaccinated poses with a custom-made T-shirt showing Spain's chief epidimiologist Fernando Simón striking a 'Dirty Harry/Clint Eastwood' pose over the words "What part of keep a two-metre distance don't you understand?' Photo: José Jordan

Spain’s Health Minister Carolina Darias on Thursday told journalists Covid-19 vaccines will continue to be voluntary in Spain given the “very high awareness of the population” with regard to the benefits of vaccination.

This follows the words of European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday, urging Member States to “think about mandatory vaccination” as more cases of the Omicron variant are detected across Europe. 

READ ALSO: Is Spain proving facts rather than force can convince the unvaccinated?

“I can understand that countries with low vaccine coverage are contemplating this and that Von der Leyen is considering opening up a debate, but in our country the situation is absolutely different,” Darias said at the press conference following her meeting with Spain’s Interterritorial Health Council.

According to the national health minister,  this was also “the general belief” of regional health leaders of each of Spain’s 17 autonomous communities she had just been in discussion with over Christmas Covid measures. 

READ MORE: Spain rules out new restrictions against Omicron variant

Almost 80 percent of Spain’s total population is fully vaccinated against Covid-19, a figure which is around 10 percent higher if looking at those who are eligible for the vaccine (over 12s). 

It has the highest vaccination rate among Europe’s most populous countries.

Germany announced tough new restrictions on Thursday in a bid to contain its fourth wave of Covid-19 aimed largely at the country’s unvaccinated people, with outgoing Chancellor Angela Merkel speaking in favour of compulsory vaccinations, which the German parliament is due to vote on soon.

Austria has also already said it will make Covid-19 vaccines compulsory next February, Belgium is also considering it and Greece on Tuesday said it will make vaccination obligatory for those over 60.

But for Spain, strict Covid-19 vaccination rules have never been on the table, having said from the start that getting the Covid-19 jabs was voluntary. 

There’s also a huge legal implication to imposing such a rule which Spanish courts are unlikely to look on favourably. 

Stricter Covid restrictions and the country’s two states of alarm, the first resulting in a full national lockdown from March to May 2020, have both been deemed unconstitutional by Spain’s Constitutional Court. 

READ ALSO: Could Spain lock down its unvaccinated or make Covid vaccines compulsory?

The Covid-19 health pass to access indoor public spaces was also until recently consistently rejected by regional high courts for breaching fundamental rights, although judges have changed their stance favouring this Covid certificate over old Covid-19 restrictions that affect the whole population.

MAP: Which regions in Spain now require a Covid health pass for daily affairs?

“In Spain what we have to do is to continue vaccinating as we have done until now” Darias added. 

“Spaniards understand that vaccines are not only a right, they are an obligation because we protect others with them”.

What Spanish health authorities are still considering is whether to vaccinate their 5 to 11 year olds after the go-ahead from the European Medicines Agency, with regions such as Madrid claiming they will start vaccinating their young children in December despite there being no official confirmation from Spain’s Vaccine Committee yet.

READ MORE: Will Spain soon vaccinate its children under 12?

Spain’s infection rate continues to rise day by day, jumping 17 points up to 234 cases per 100,000 people on Thursday. There are now also five confirmed cases of the Omicron variant in the country, one through community transmission.

Hospital bed occupancy with Covid patients has also risen slightly nationwide to 3.3 percent, as has ICU Covid occupancy which now stands at 8.4 percent, but the Spanish government insists these figures are “almost three times lower” than during previous waves of the coronavirus pandemic.