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EDUCATION

Q&A: What happens when there is a Covid-19 outbreak at a school in Spain?

Pupils across Spain are heading back to school this week and next after a hiatus of six months and as the nation is gripped by a second wave that is sending the number of new cases of Covid-19 soaring.

Q&A: What happens when there is a Covid-19 outbreak at a school in Spain?
Photos: AFP

So what happens if a case is detected in school?

The start of the academic year has been staggered this September with regional education boards deciding when schools and which classes could welcome back pupils in each of their territories.

Some schools are already back and others have yet to open fully while many secondary schools are relying on a combination of attendance and online-learning to limit the risk.

A slew of health rules have been put in place, including mask compulsory for all children over the age of six, including in the classroom and large classes being split into “educational bubbles” to keep children together in a smaller group for learning as well as play time and at lunch.

READ ALSO These are the health rules in place as French schools return

But in spite of all the precautions, cases of Covid-19 in schools are likely to happen.

Indeed, in the first four days alone, 53 outbreaks were detected at schools across Spain forcing classes to be sent home and a Basque primary school  became the very first one to have close entirely after several members of its staff room tested positive.

READ MORE:  School in northern Spain becomes first to close after teachers test Covid-19 positve

So what happens if a pupil or staff member tests positive?

There are general protocols in place, but as with many things in Spain, exact procedures will depend on which of Spain's 17 autonomous regions you are in as health and education authorities in each territory have their own regulations.

Isolation

Firstly parents have been asked to give an undertaking that they will not send their child to school if they appear to be unwell, and show signs of having a cough or a fever.

If a child develops these symptoms while at school they will be isolated from the class until their parents or carer can arrive to take them home and they must stay at home until the result of a PCR test.

The rest of the “bubble” will continue as normal until the results are known.

Quarantine

If that child then tests positive then the student bubble in which that child was included must all be sent home to isolate for a period of 14 days from the last contact with said child, regardless of whether they show symptoms or not.

The “bubble” is designed to contain a maximum of 20 students and one tutor who spend all their school time together; lessons, playtime and lunch allowing them to socialize “without having to maintain strict social distancing”.

What about siblings?

Siblings of those children who show symptoms should also be kept in isolation until the result of the test and if positive then for 14 days.

What if the teacher tests positive?

If the teacher is included in the student bubble then same protocol is followed as for a suspected case in one of the pupils. But if it is a specialist teacher who moved around classes (such as music or English) then it is assessed on a case by case basis by authorities at the school to decided whether that staff member has been in close contact with anyone else at the school and put them at risk of infection.

These specialist teachers who do not have a designated “bubble” are supposed to keep a distance of 1.5metres from students at all times.

Cleaning and tracing

If any child or staff member tests positive, the school must thoroughly disinfect any areas they have been in and create a list of all the people that person has been in contact with beyond their “bubble”.

The list is then sent to health authorities, who will contact everyone on the list and invite them for testing.

Closures

The school and the local health authority together will then take a decision on what needs to be closed – whether this is just one class or the entire school.

The Education Ministry says it wants schools to remain open as far as possible, but each decision is taken on a case-by-case basis by local authorities and depends on the spread of the virus, the level of contact, the layout of the school buildings and many other factors.

Parental leave

Probably the key question for any parents whose children are sent home from school – are you entitled to time off work to look after them? 

Well again, that depends.

If yours is the child that has tested positive then you are obligated to stay away from the workplace and isolate for 14 days as well. In which case you are entitled to a “baja”  or sick leave.

However if your child has been sent home because someone else in the class tested positive you are currently not entitled to “sick leave” to look after them but can stay home under the “me Cuida” programme, under which parents who have to care for their child can make up their working hours at another time.

That said, there has been much debate about whether to introduce a mechanism to give parents leave to stay at home with their children if they have been sent home from school regardless of whether they are infected or not.

Spain’s education Minister Isabel Celaá has confirmed that “several possibilities” are being explored to ensure parents can stay at home with quarantined children but insists they have to be worked out with Employment and Social Security ministries.  

Home-learning

If a class or school is closed, teachers will be expected to put in place distance learning solutions in the same way that they did during the lockdown, so parents trying to work at home while also looking after their children can take small comfort from knowing that the kids should at least have some schoolwork to be getting on with.

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COVID-19

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.

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