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EDUCATION

EXPLAINED: Spain’s back-to-school Covid plans for September 2021

Spain’s Education Minister has laid out her department’s plans for the 2021-2022 school year, with class numbers set to return to pre-pandemic levels but no requirement for teachers or pupils to be vaccinated.

EXPLAINED: Spain's back-to-school Covid plans for September 2021
Photo: Josep LAGO / AFP

The Covid Delta variant hasn’t changed the initial plans drafted by Spain’s Ministry of Education in May for the return to the classrooms in September 2021.

This was the main conclusion drawn by the country’s new Education Minister Pilar Alegría during a radio interview on Cadena Ser on Monday August 8th, where she highlighted how Spain’s advanced vaccination campaign was allowing for a gradual return to normality in schools across the country.

The majority of Spain’s regions are now vaccinating their older teens and at least six autonomous communities have started inoculating 12 to 15 year olds, with vaccinations for young children still dependent on approval by the European Medicines Agency. 

Full return to classrooms 

With this in mind, Alegría stressed that the plan is still for in-person class attendance to be 100 percent when children return to school, mostly in the second week of September. 

According to the minister, it won’t be necessary to force teachers to get vaccinated as “practically all” have received their full vaccination. 

This means that there will be around 25 pupils per class, instead of last school year’s limit of 20, and at primary school level this number might reach up to 30 in certain regions.

ESO and Bachillerato (secondary and high school) students will also be expected to make a full-time return to the classroom, rather than the split between in-person and online tuition they received the previous school year.

This return back to normal numbers means that schools will no longer need to employ the extra teachers they had to hire during the pandemic, thus reducing costs. In total around Spain, this numbered around 35,000 extra teachers.

While there will be a loss of kindergarten and primary school teachers, the new agreement that states that all secondary school students should attend class on a daily basis from September means more teachers may be needed for those age groups.

The extra educators needed during the pandemic have largely been financed by the €1.6 billion educational Covid fund which was approved last summer.

Photo: CRISTINA QUICLER/AFP

Class bubbles 

Social and class ‘bubbles’ will also remain in place during the next year in kindergartens and primary schools, meaning that just as during the previous year young children in the same class won’t have to keep a distance from each other.

However, they still won’t be allowed to mingle or interact with those from other classes in the hallways or playgrounds.

If local case numbers fall to a fortnightly infection rate below 25 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, the various ‘bubble’ groups will be able to mix together on the playground with others from the same year.

For secondary schools, high schools and professional training centres (FP), the Spanish government’s proposal states that students should keep 1.2 meters apart from each other, instead of 1.5 meters during the 2020-2021 school year.

Masks and other safety measures remain

The government has said that there will be continued use of masks in schools for pupils aged six or older, as well as strict times when certain age groups can enter and exit the school. 

Age group shifts will also continue at lunch times and in the playground. Proper ventilation of classrooms will also be a priority.

Personal hygiene measures as well the thorough disinfection of surfaces will continue to be reinforced and there will still have to be a Covid-19 coordinator at each educational centre to ensure the rules are followed. 

Will Spanish schools’ new Covid measures be enough to prevent future outbreaks?

“The measures that we believe are most important are maintained, which are above all those based on the use of masks indoors and airing of classrooms,” Spanish epidemiologist Quique Bassat, who advised the Ministry of Health in the design of the new rules, told El País back in May.

“It’s true that the teacher-to-student ratio and interpersonal distances are reduced, but we believe that what is proposed is reasonable and that it will help to prevent infections among children and adolescents, the last to be vaccinated”.

However, with the emergence of Delta as the dominant variant in Spain, Bassat has acknowledged that the fact that it’s “much more contagious” than previous strains means health and educational authorities have to be “far more alert about outbreaks”. 

Other concerned epidemiologists and parents believe the prospect of packed classrooms with poor ventilation does not bode well when the country’s current fortnightly infection rate for 12 to 19 year olds is well above 1,000 cases per 100,000 people.  

Although a joint meeting between Spain’s 17 regions and the national Education Department in May saw a unanimous vote in favour of the measures, educational authorities from across the country will meet again in late August to confirm the final set of rules for the next school year.

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

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MONEY

Rampant branch closures and job cuts help Spain’s banks post huge earnings

Spain’s biggest banks this week reported huge profits in 2021 and cheered their return to recovery post-Covid, but ruthless cost-cutting in the form of thousands of layoffs, hundreds of branch closures and the removal of many ATMs have left customers in Spain suffering, in this latest example of ‘Capitalismo 2.0’. 

A man withdraws cash from a Santander branch in Madrid.
More than 3,500 Santander workers lost their jobs in Spain in 2021 and a further 2,000 more employees working for Santander across Europe were also laid off. Photo: PHILIPPE DESMAZES / AFP

Spanish banking giant Santander on Wednesday said it has bounced back from the pandemic as it returned to profit last year, beating analyst expectations and exceeding its pre-COVID earnings.

Likewise, Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA said on Thursday that it saw a strong rebound in 2021 following the Covid crisis, tripling its net profits thanks to a recovery in business activity.

It’s a similar story for Unicaja (€137 million profit in 2021), Caixabank (€5.2 billion profit thanks to merge with Bankia), Sabadell (€530 million profit last year), Abanca (€323 million profit) and all of Spain’s other main banks.

This may be promising news for Spain’s banking sector, but their profits have come at a cost for many of their employees and customers. 

In 2021, 19,000 bank employees lost their jobs, almost all through state-approved ERE layoffs, meant for companies struggling financially.

BBVA employees protest against layoffs in May 2021 in Madrid. Spain’s second-largest bank BBVA is looking to shed 3,800 jobs, affecting 16 percent of its staff, in a move denounced by unions as “scandalous”. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)

Around 11 percent of bank branches in Spain have also been closed down in 2021 as part of Spanish banks’ attempts to cut costs, even though they’ve agreed to pay just under €5 billion in compensation.

Rampant branch closures have in turn resulted in 2,200 ATMs being removed since the Covid-19 pandemic began, even though the use of cajeros automáticos went up by 20 percent in 2021.

There are now 48,300 ATMs in Spain, levels not seen since 2001.

READ MORE:

Apart from losses caused by the coronavirus crisis, Spain’s financial institutions have justified the lay-offs, branch closures and ATM removals under the premise that there was already a shift to online banking taking place among customers. 

But the problem has been around for longer in a country with stark population differences between the cities and so-called ‘Empty Spain’, with rural communities and elderly people bearing the brunt of it. 

 

Caixabank laid off almost 6,500 workers in the first sixth months of 2021. Photo: ANDER GILLENEA/AFP

Just this month, a 78-year-old Valencian man has than collected 400,000+ signatures in an online petition calling for Spanish banks to offer face-to-face customer service that’s “humane” to elderly people, spurring the Bank of Spain and even Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez to publicly say they would address the problem.

READ MORE: ‘I’m old, not stupid’ – How one Spanish senior is demanding face-to-face bank service

It’s worth noting that between 2008 and 2019, Spain had the highest number of branch closures and bank job cuts in Europe, with 48 percent of its branches shuttered compared with a bloc-wide average of 31 percent.

Below is more detailed information on how Santander and BBVA, Spain’s two biggest banks, have reported their huge profits in 2021.

Santander

Driven by a strong performance in the United States and Britain, the bank booked a net profit of €8.1 billion in 2021, close to a 12-year high. 

It was a huge improvement from 2020 when the pandemic hit and the bank suffered a net loss of €8.7 billion after it was forced to write down the value of several of its branches, particularly in the UK. It was also higher than 2019, when the bank posted a net profit of €6.5 billion.

Analysts from FactSet were expecting profits of €7.9 billion. 

“Our 2021 results demonstrate once again the value of our scale and presence across both developed and developing markets, with attributable profit 25 per cent higher than pre-COVID levels in 2019,” said chief executive Ana Botin in a statement.

Net banking income, the equivalent to turnover, also increased, reaching €33.4 billion, compared to €31.9 billion in 2020. This dynamic was made possible by a strong increase in customer numbers, with the group now counting almost 153 million customers worldwide. 

“We have added five million new customers in the last 12 months alone,” said Botin.

Santander performed particularly well in Europe and North America, with profits doubling in constant euros compared to 2020. In the UK, where Santander has a strong presence, current profit even “quadrupled” over the same period to €1.6 billion.

Last year’s net loss was the first in Banco Santander’s history, after having to revise downwards the value of several of its subsidiaries, notably in the UK, because of COVID.

The banking giant, which cut nearly 3,500 jobs at the end of 2020, in September announced an interim shareholder payout of €1.7 billion for its 2021 results. “In the coming weeks, we will announce additional compensation linked to the 2021 results,” it said.

BBVA

The group, which mainly operates in Spain but also in Latin America, Mexico and Turkey, posted profits of €4.65 billion ($5.25 billion), up from €1.3 billion a year earlier.

The result, which followed a solid fourth quarter with profits of €1.34 billion, was higher than expected, with FactSet analysts expecting a figure of €4.32 billion .

Excluding non-recurring items, such as the outcome of a restructuring plan launched last year, it generated profits of 5.07 billion euros in what was the highest figure “in 10 years”, the bank said in a statement.

In 2020, the Spanish bank saw its net profit tumble 63 percent as a result of asset depreciation and provisions taken against an increase in bad loans due to the economic fallout of the virus crisis.

“The economic recovery over the past year has brought with it a marked upturn in banking activity, mainly in the loan portfolio,” the bank explained, pointing to a reduction of the provisions put in place because of Covid.

In 2021, BBVA added a “record” 8.7 million new customers, largely due to the growth of its online activities. It now has 81.7 million customers worldwide.

The group’s net interest margins also rose 6.1 percent year-on-year to €14.7 billion, said the bank, which is undergoing a cost-cutting drive.

So far, it has axed 2,935 jobs and closed down 480 branches as the banking sector undergoes increasing digitalisation and fewer and fewer transactions are carried out over the counter.

At the end of 2020, BBVA sold its US unit to PNC Financial Services for nearly 10 billion euros and decided to reinvest some of the funds in the Turkish market.

In November, it launched a bid to take full control of its Turkish lending subsidiary Garanti, offering €2.25 billion ($2.6 billion) to buy the 50.15 percent stake it does not yet own.

The deal should be finalised in the first quarter of 2022.

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