Have the preventive measures implemented in schools worked? The truth is that the actions taken in different countries vary greatly from one to another. While some countries have advocated the closure of schools at times of increased cases, including France, Portugal and the United Kingdom, other countries have opted to keep them open, as in the case of Spain. Here, we are going to see what measures have already been taken and are to be implemented in Spain, where outbreaks in schools and the number of quarantined classes during the last school year were very low, according to the Ministry of Education. It should be borne in mind that the measures put in place also vary between the different Autonomous Communities.
The document 'Prevention, hygiene and health promotion measures against COVID-19 for schools in the academic year 2021-2022' was drawn up by the Public Health Commission on 29 June, 2021, and approved at the joint meeting of the Sectorial Conference of Education and the Interterritorial Council of the National Health System held on 19 May, 2021. This document provides a common framework that can be adapted by each Autonomous Community and applied according to the reality of each educational centre and its local context.
This work and its recommendations are based on the current pandemic situation: the progress in vaccination, the presence of certain new variants, the current evidence of transmission via aerosols, and so on. These factors mean that the measures taken against COVID-19 should be maintained in schools for the new school year, being adapted to the potential scenarios that may arise in the context of the pandemic over the coming months.
In Spain, according to data from the National Epidemiological Surveillance Network, from 22 June, 2020, to 1 June, 2021, 3.2% of the total number of confirmed cases correspond to children under the age of 5, 4.3% to 5-9 year olds, and 11.9% to 10-19 year olds, a low proportion of the total number of confirmed cases. According to the Ministry of Education, it has been shown that schools do not amplify transmission, but rather reflect community transmission.
In this sense, they have established certain basic prevention, hygiene and healthcare principles to stop the spread of COVID-19 in schools:
1-Limiting contact: physical distance and stable social bubbles.
2-Personal prevention measures: hand hygiene, compulsory masks for children aged 6 years and over, and the vaccination of the educational community.
3-Cleaning and ventilation: cleaning and disinfection, and permanent cross ventilation.
4- Case management: protocol for dealing with cases and outbreaks and coordination between the Healthcare and Education departments.
Cross-cutting actions have been established for this purpose: reorganisation of educational centres, coordination and participation, communication and education for health and equity.
In order to adjust the measures as closely as possible to the epidemiological situation, scenarios are proposed according to the level of alert in each region:
- New normal, alert levels 1 and 2.
- Alert levels 3 and 4
In this sense, each centre must have a Course Start Plan that includes Contingency Plans foreseeing the actions to be carried out and the necessary coordination mechanisms for the possible scenarios that may arise.
MOST IMPORTANT MEASURES:
- The maximum amount of face-to-face teaching will be guaranteed for all levels and stages of the education system, at least in the scenario of new normality, alert levels 1 and 2. In alert levels 3 and 4, in the exceptional case that the measures can no longer be complied with, it would be possible to switch to blended learning only from the 3rd year of secondary education onwards. The generalised, unilateral suspension of classroom teaching activity by an Autonomous Community or Autonomous City will only be adopted in exceptional situations, after submission to the Interterritorial Council of the Spanish National Health System (Consejo Interterritorial del SNS).
- In general, an interpersonal distance of at least 1.5 metres must be maintained in interactions between people in the school, with masks being worn regardless of the distance. This same distance must be maintained by students when moving around the school or outside the classroom.
- Within the classroom, the students will be organised differently depending on the year they are in and the transmission situation in the community.
- The stable bubbles (Grupos de Convivencia Estable or GCE) will be maintained. These are defined as groups comprising a limited number of pupils together with their tutor, guaranteeing the isolation of all the activities carried out within the school and avoiding interaction with other groups, with the number of contacts being kept to a minimum. On the other hand, within the group it will not be necessary to keep a strict interpersonal distance, so that group members can socialise and play with one another.
- In the new normal scenario, interaction between groups of the same school year is allowed mainly during outdoor activities (breaks, sports activities, projects, etc.). Interaction between groups is not allowed in the other risk scenarios.
- In Compulsory Secondary Education, an interpersonal distance of 1.5 metres must be maintained inside the classroom, which can be relaxed to 1.2 metres in the low transmission scenario, in order to guarantee face-to-face teaching.
- To avoid congestion, entry to and exit from the school should be staggered or, where appropriate, organisational measures should be adopted, such as entering the premises through separate doors or spaces, or other measures that avoid crowding at the entrances to and exits from the school premises.
- The school should minimise the movement of groups of pupils around the school, making it as easy as possible for teachers to go to the appropriate classroom.
- Priority will be given to communication with families by telephone, email, messages or ordinary mail, and electronic procedures will be encouraged.
MEDIDAS PARA EL DESPLAZAMIENTO AL COLEGIO:
- In terms of transport to school, active transport (walking or cycling) should be prioritised on safe routes to school as this is the mobility option that best guarantees interpersonal distance, and is also a healthier option that avoids the need to share enclosed spaces. In this sense, the document states that schools must try to promote safe routes to school and increase bicycle parking spaces, in collaboration with local councils.
In the case of collective school transport, fixed seats will be assigned to students for the entire school year, unless, based on the epidemiological situation, the health authorities determine a more restrictive or more flexible use of such transport.
It should also be noted that the use of masks is compulsory on school transport for children aged 6 years and over and recommended for children aged 3 to 5 years.
Finally, it should be noted that during the summer, progress has been made in vaccinating children between 12 and 16 years of age, and there are already plans to move on to younger age groups, from 6 years and up. Two clinical trials are currently underway to test the safety of vaccines in children over 6 years of age. Progress in vaccination, including of the youngest children, will mean greater safety and a reduced spread of the coronavirus in the country, as we will be closer to the sought-after herd immunity.