Keeping schools open and safe – learning from Spain’s exceptional experience

Substantial parts of this article are adapted from an August 4, 2021 article in The Conversation by Fernando Trujillo Sáez; Jonatan Castaño Muñoz; Riina Vuorikari, and Romina Cachia, entitled Portrait of the school experience in Spain during more than a year of pandemic (in Spanish). The original article can be found here. It summarizes the Spanish findings from a study launched from the European Commission's Joint Research Center in five countries to better understand how the 20-21 academic year worked in Europe. In addition, I draw from several articles in the Spanish media (see here, here, here, here, here, here, and here).

If we ask any teacher, student or family, it is not difficult to realize how stressful the school experience has been during the last year and a half, almost anywhere in the world. The closure of educational centers caused by COVID-19 and the exceptional conditions under which the 20-21 school year took place have posed fundamental challenges for educational systems, especially as they prepared for the current school year, which started in Europe and North America this month.

Spain has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic and is experiencing a fifth wave of COVID-19 that arrived earlier than Canada’s fourth wave but is similarly driven by the delta variant and has seen a significant spike in cases among young unvaccinated people. The opening of the new school year in September 2021 arrives in Spain, however, with more confidence than in many other countries, including Canada. This confidence arises from their positive experience during the past year.

The Spanish case is, internationally, quite exceptional. Within Europe, only Sweden and Spain managed to keep their schools open for the entire academic year. We can draw lessons from Spain’s experience on combatting the pandemic and improving our educational systems in Canada and elsewhere.

The Spanish exceptionality began at the end of August 2020 guided by a social consensus over the importance of face-to-face teaching. The educational authorities by consensus decided to keep the schools open with face-to-face teaching, at least up to tenth grade. This was a reaction to their earlier difficult experience of having more than eight million students in the country off the classroom from mid-March to September 2020.

Several policies and directives guided the opening of the school year in September 2020. The ministries of Health and Education – in coordination with the autonomous regions (like the provinces in Canada) – established a strict protocol that saw fewer students in each class to increase social distancing. To stop the spread, the federal government established safety and hygiene measures that affected school operations: All students aged six and over required to wear a mask in class; class sizes reduced; students assigned to ‘bubbles’ to avoid mixing; desks placed at least 1.5 meters apart; improved indoor ventilation; hand sanitizing stations; restricted mobility within the school; reinforced cleaning of facilities; temperature checks; protocols for positive cases; requirement for full class confinement when a positive case detected; etc. In September 2020 vaccines were not available, but for the current school year Spain contemplates all teachers to be fully vaccinated.

These COVID protocols shaped the development of the 20-21 school year. As a general conclusion, the schools appear to have been safe spaces with very few outbreaks and have not contributed significantly to the spread of the virus, while it has been possible to advance quite normally in the teaching and learning process. This has been achieved thanks to strict adherence to protocols by teachers, students and staff. Indeed, experts assess that protocols have been followed in exemplary ways.

On the other hand, compliance with COVID protocols has also generated difficulties and problems. The forced interpersonal distance and reduced mobility in the classroom have favored methodological strategies more focused on the lecture than on innovative strategies such as cooperative learning or project-based learning, which this year seem to have been put on hold.

However, the bubbling of students and the presence of many more teachers – 35,000 additional teachers hired as “COVID teaching staff” across the country – allowed working with a lower ratio. Teachers and students participating in the research pointed out that the reduced ratio and the adjustment of the curriculum to core elements – given the restrictions of time and space – compensated some of the difficulties generated by the pandemic and the COVID protocol.

There is consensus that the reduction in class sizes (capped at 16 for daycare and kindergarten and 20 from first grade and up), the requirement for a 1.5-meter distance between desks, and the hiring of the 35,000 “COVID teachers” to comply with the capacity limits and physical distancing, were instrumental for a safe reopening in 20-21. Upper-level secondary students studied through a combination of blended – face-to-face and remote – teaching, thus allowing reduced number of students in-person and substantial physical distancing in classrooms. 

Another crucial factor in the success of the 2020-21 school year in Spain was the early recognition of aerosol transmission – an area that has not been taken seriously in Ontario despite the calls for action from epidemiologists such as David Fisman. In Spain, given that many schools are in old buildings with poor ventilation, guidance was provided to increase ventilation through every possible means, including maintaining windows open in the classrooms, even in winter. Spain has the benefit of a warmer climate and milder winters, and children were allowed to bring jackets and blankets to class in case the room got colder. In Ontario, ventilation work began late this summer, and government has never directed smaller class sizes.

Issues of equity remained salient in Spain, even if COVID crisis situations were largely avoided. Structural problems prior to the pandemic and the demands on teachers during the pandemic meant that those who have suffered the most educationally during the academic year 20-21 have been, precisely, those who need the most help and support: the students in vulnerable situations and students with specific educational support needs. The authors call for an in-depth evaluation of the structures and resources required for attention to diversity in Spain. The commitment to educational inclusion and equity are essential to also guarantee the quality of the educational system.

The blended model of teaching in secondary school, with alternating days or hours, has faced severe criticism by both teachers, students and their families. The alternation has not worked satisfactorily and there are complaints about the difficulties of the students to maintain their routines and their work rhythm, contributing to anxiety and learning difficulties among the students.

Both the experience of remote school after March 2020 and the experience during the 20-21 school year have raised awareness about the importance of digital competence for all students. Technological infrastructures in many schools and the use of virtual learning platforms have been valued as a complement to face-to-face teaching. The research suggests the need to advance the technology so that it contributes not only to the sending and receiving of tasks through a platform, but also to a more meaningful, deep and memorable learning.

The 20-21 school year ended in Spain with the feeling that the enormous effort made by governments and the educational community was well worth it. Educational centers remained safe and became guarantors of equality and the right to education, despite the structural problems and difficulties.

Precisely having such a clear image of the problems and difficulties experienced can allow us in Canada and Ontario – even at this late stage but with only a few weeks into the new school year -- to adjust action plans so as to face these challenges and improve the educational system. We want it to guarantee quality education for all students and to be prepared for the challenges of a delta-driven fourth wave, and a potential fifth wave in the horizon.