MADRID—Jose Antonio’s kids won’t be going to school this month, they’ll be staying home. “I’d rather get a fine, fight with the administration, or even go to jail if necessary, than have a family member in the ICU because of this recklessness,” he said.
Antonio is the father of a seven-year-old girl from Madrid who is due to start school on Sept. 8. Currently Spain is the European country with the most COVID-19 cases. August saw a rise of 78 percent. Families are afraid of the imminent start of the school year but the government is taking a hardline stance: education between the ages of 6 and 16 is compulsory, and parents who do not take their children to school will be investigated by social services, and could be punished with 3 to 6 months in prison.
Despite the threats, parents are organizing widespread revolts and pledging not to return to school. Most studies have found that children are generally not too badly affected by the virus, but parents fear they could spread it to the rest of the family.
When planning the return to the classroom, most European countries have been using analysis from the Harvard Global Health Institute as a reference to estimate whether or not the reopening of schools is safe. The briefing points out that places with an incidence of more than 25 cases per 100,000 inhabitants are not in a position to open their schools without major risks. Spain now has an infection rate eight times higher than the maximum accepted by Harvard scientists: 205.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. Italy, for example, one of the most affected countries in the past, has just 23.7 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, almost the same incidence as the United Kingdom, which has 24 cases.
The size of the second wave is not Spanish parents’ only concern; Spain does not have a set health plan for schools returning, it is unclear what schools will do if there’s an outbreak on campus.
Education is generally governed by the 17 individual regions of Spain, called Autonomous Communities. The Ministry of Education can enforce nationwide protocols, but Pedro Sánchez’s government’s is choosing to do quite the opposite: let the Autonomous Communities figure it out.
The government has limited itself to agreeing on minimum requirements: interpersonal distance of 1.5 meters, obligatory use of masks from the age of 6, and establishing reduced bubble groups of about 20 students, although there has actually been no agreement as to the ratio of students per bubble because very few schools have the capacity to implement such a measure just 10 days before the start of the school year.
Parents have been left even more confused and concerned because every region seems to be using different rules. If there’s one set of measures in Barcelona and a totally different system in Madrid and Valencia, how are you supposed to have faith in the rules? Spanish schoolchildren will be unevenly protected in their own country.
While the central and local governments fight over who assumes the responsibilities, the same is happening in the actual schools, which find themselves unable to deal with all of the different demands being placed on them.
What irritates teachers and parents most is that the government has waited until Aug. 27 to even start discussing the return to school. Prime Minister Sánchez and his ministers disappeared in August for the summer vacation and have not returned to the limelight until this week. It was a controversial decision, all the more so since infections have run rampant here since mid-July.
This lack of foresight and uncertainty has caused teachers’ associations to call strikes in some regions of Spain. They are demanding better health security and realistic proposals. “What can I do to calm a crying child on his first day of school if I can’t touch him or hug him?” a teacher from northern Spain asked on Facebook today.
There are thousands of parents who believe that the government is not in a position to provide reasonable protection for their children. The response of the Minister of Education has been categorical: schooling is compulsory, and anyone who does not send their children to school could be punished. A truancy investigation would be opened and—in the most serious cases—the penalty for the parents could be imprisonment. The state could even take children away from parents who insist on refusing to let their children to school for fear of the coronavirus, although legal experts say it would be difficult to implement.
The government’s inflexible stance seeks to discourage school absenteeism, firstly because it has a direct effect on parents’ ability to do their job, and the Spanish economy is too delicate to put more obstacles in the way of parents’ work.
Secondly, Sánchez wants to avoid a showdown with parents who want face-to-face teaching to be voluntary because they can afford to keep their children at home.
The government’s argument, in this case, is ideological. Sources close to the Ministry of Education say that “such a measure would increase inequalities,” while “the function of education is the opposite, to favor equality.”
In Andalusia, southern Spain, a conglomerate of hundreds of parents’ associations has already announced that their children will not go back to school under these circumstances.
As if there were not enough battles to fight, the government’s latest plan—revealed by the newspaper El Confidencial—was to force parents to sign a document making them responsible and liable for the consequences if they sent children with symptoms of coronavirus to class. That idea was rejected.
Another contentious issue is over sick leave for parents if their children are forced out of school. The government announced that parents would be able to take time off work if their child tests positive for COVID-19, but not if they are sent home to quarantine.
The situation in Spain is delicately poised, and people have run out of patience. The country imposed the most restrictive measures in Europe, with two months of total confinement for everyone, the obligatory wearing of masks at all times, and sanctions for non-compliance with the various regulations. But these stricter restrictions have not led to better results.
The Spanish economy’s dependence on tourism led the government to open up rapidly in July and August, forcing hotels, bars and restaurants to apply strict regulations but dismissing the need for controls at airports.
The government blames the new wave on people being lax during their holidays, while hoteliers and tourist companies cite the lack of control at airports. The government has also been blamed for allowing overcrowding at immigrant reception centers, which has led to riots and mass escapes, even in centers that were supposed to be in COVID-19 lockdown and under police surveillance.
The outlook is bleak for Spain, the government has a poor record on controlling the virus, but the economy cannot afford another major lockdown after the two months of confinement, which led to an onslaught of closures and bankruptcies.
Whether Madrid and local governments decide to lock down or open up, either position will be dangerous. Spanish families are preparing to endure a cold winter looming over their economy.
Translated by Joel Dalmau