Will face masks soon not be required in Spain’s classrooms?

School classrooms could soon become the first indoor public spaces in Spain where face masks are not required, with the country’s paediatricians proposing that they serve as “a mirror for the rest of society” of what a gradual de-escalation of mask wearing indoors would mean.

masks indoors spain
Students wearing face masks attend class at the Lopez de Mendoza Institute in Burgos after the reopening of schools in the community of Castilla y León. (Photo by CESAR MANSO / AFP)

Less than a week since face masks stopped being mandatory outdoors in Spain, the prospect of this applying to some interior settings has already been proposed. 

The suggestion isn’t one made by the Spanish government, but rather an official organisation which has collected evidence “to demonstrate the usefulness of a change in strategy”, serving also as “a mirror for the rest of society”.

The Spanish Association of Paediatricians (AEP) is in favour of the progressive withdrawal of masks from Spain’s classrooms, as their research has proven that “children’s ability to infect others follows an age-dependent pattern, which increases progressively with age”.

Other Spanish health experts are also beginning to speak of “normalising transmission” as such a high percentage of the population has now been vaccinated or infected, or in many cases both. 

That involves accepting that transmission will continue and instead focus efforts on preventing cases that may be more serious, generally among those who are older and those who have pre-existing health conditions. 

Since the use of masks in schools is only mandatory for children over 6 years of age, AEP have been able to compare the risk of infection between those who use a mask (primary and secondary education) and those who do not (preschool education), concluding that “there are no significant differences” in transmission between them. 

As a result, they propose a progressive de-escalation of mask wearing in classrooms across the country as follows:

  • First and second year of primary school: from Monday, February 28th 2022
  • Third and fourth year of primary school: from Monday, March 14th 2022
  • Fifth and sixth year of primary school: from Monday, March 28th 2022
  • All of secondary school (ESO) : from Monday, April 25th 2022
  • All of high school/sixth form (Bachiller) : from Monday, May 9th 2022

Both the associations of speech therapists and paediatricians have also spoken up against “the possible negative impact of the use of the mask on learning, relationships and the socialisation of children”.

Throughout the pandemic, Spain has maintained a strict attitude to indoor mask-wearing, making it mandatory since May 2020.

READ MORE:When will masks stop being mandatory indoors in Spain?

Spanish authorities have however spoken of leading a global push towards treating the coronavirus as an endemic disease similar to the flu, changing the means of surveillance and the importance it is given.

People do continue to die from Covid-19 in Spain and the sixth wave has in fact now claimed more lives (9,126) in the country than the fifth and fourth coronavirus wave. 

But according to leading epidemiologist Quique Bassat, “it a good time to consider this de-escalation” of mask wearing in classrooms as a trial because “on the one hand, we have two consecutive weeks of declining infection rates, and on the other a progressive increase in vaccination in children under 12, which although it is not advancing at the rate that I would like to see, it is clearly increasing”.

Together with increased vaccination rates, good ventilation of classrooms would also be used as another tool to replace mask wearing in classrooms.

But could all this apply to adults, seeing as children have a far lower risk of suffering serious health conditions if they contract Covid-19?

The evolution of the pandemic will determine much of this, but slowly but surely, it seems likely that masks indoors will go from being mandatory to recommended at some point in some indoor settings over the course of 2022. 

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Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

A resurgence of Covid-19 cases in Europe, this time driven by new, fast-spreading Omicron subvariants, is once again threatening to disrupt people's summer plans.

Covid-19: European summer holidays threatened by rise of subvariants

Several Western European nations have recently recorded their highest daily case numbers in months, due in part to Omicron sub-variants BA.4 and BA.5.

The increase in cases has spurred calls for increased vigilance across a continent that has relaxed most if not all coronavirus restrictions.

The first resurgence came in May in Portugal, where BA.5 propelled a wave that hit almost 30,000 cases a day at the beginning of June. That wave has since started to subside, however.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan

Italy recorded more than 62,700 cases on Tuesday, nearly doubling the number from the previous week, the health ministry said. 

Germany meanwhile reported more than 122,000 cases on Tuesday. 

France recorded over 95,000 cases on Tuesday, its highest daily number since late April, representing a 45-percent increase in just a week.

Austria this Wednesday recorded more than 10,000 for the first time since April.

READ ALSO: Italy’s transport mask rule extended to September as Covid rate rises

Cases have also surged in Britain, where there has been a seven-fold increase in Omicron reinfection, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS blamed the rise on the BA.4 and BA.5 variants, but also said Covid fell to the sixth most common cause of death in May, accounting for 3.3 percent of all deaths in England and Wales.

BA.5 ‘taking over’

Mircea Sofonea, an epidemiologist at the University of Montpellier, said Covid’s European summer wave could be explained by two factors.

READ ALSO: 11,000 new cases: Will Austria reintroduce restrictions as infection numbers rise?

One is declining immunity, because “the protection conferred by an infection or a vaccine dose decreases in time,” he told AFP.

The other came down to the new subvariants BA.4 and particularly BA.5, which are spreading more quickly because they appear to be both more contagious and better able to escape immunity.

Olivier Schwartz, head of the virus and immunity unit at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, said BA.5 was “taking over” because it is 10 percent more contagious than BA.2.

“We are faced with a continuous evolution of the virus, which encounters people who already have antibodies — because they have been previously infected or vaccinated — and then must find a selective advantage to be able to sneak in,” he said.

READ ALSO: Tourists: What to do if you test positive for Covid in France

But are the new subvariants more severe?

“Based on limited data, there is no evidence of BA.4 and BA.5 being associated with increased infection severity compared to the circulating variants BA.1 and BA.2,” the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) said last week.

But rising cases can result in increasing hospitalisations and deaths, the ECDC warned.

Could masks be making a comeback over summer? (Photo by OSCAR DEL POZO / AFP)

Alain Fischer, who coordinates France’s pandemic vaccine strategy, warned that the country’s hospitalisations had begun to rise, which would likely lead to more intensive care admissions and eventually more deaths.

However, in Germany, virologist Klaus Stohr told the ZDF channel that “nothing dramatic will happen in the intensive care units in hospitals”.

Return of the mask? 

The ECDC called on European countries to “remain vigilant” by maintaining testing and surveillance systems.

“It is expected that additional booster doses will be needed for those groups most at risk of severe disease, in anticipation of future waves,” it added.

Faced with rising cases, last week Italy’s government chose to extend a requirement to wear medical grade FFP2 masks on public transport until September 30.

“I want to continue to recommend protecting yourself by getting a second booster shot,” said Italy’s Health Minister Roberto Speranza, who recently tested positive for Covid.

READ ALSO: Spain to offer fourth Covid-19 vaccine dose to ‘entire population’

Fischer said France had “clearly insufficient vaccination rates” and that a second booster shot was needed.

Germany’s government is waiting on expert advice on June 30 to decide whether to reimpose mandatory mask-wearing rules indoors.

The chairman of the World Medical Association, German doctor Frank Ulrich Montgomery, has recommended a “toolbox” against the Covid wave that includes mask-wearing, vaccination and limiting the number of contacts.