When children go back to school in September should class sizes return to normal?

by Deborah Cater
Class sizes to return to pre-pandemic levels in September

In May, before the fifth wave, the government decided children will return to school without reducing class sizes. Now the highly contagious delta variant has taken hold and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has yet to approve a Covid-19 vaccine for the under-12s, who account for 11% of the population.

In May, the threat of the delta variant of the coronavirus was still unclear. But now, with less than a month before school restarts, things have changed. The delta strain is now dominant in Spain. There are concerns about whether the current coronavirus safety measures – that do not include reducing class numbers – are enough.

Rules for return to school

So far, regional governments are not considering changing the safety protocol approved in spring, they confirmed to EL PAÍS. Classes will go back to having the same number of students as before the pandemic. That is: up to 25 for early education and 30 in primary school – an increase of 5 in each case. They also agreed to maintain the so-called class “bubble” system where groups of students stay together and do not interact with other people at school.

The distance between students at secondary schools will reduce from 1.5 metres to 1.2 metres. This ensures in-person learning for all pupils and also reduces the cost of hiring additional teachers.

Other rules will remain unchanged, according to the protocol. Teachers and students will still need to wear face masks, classrooms will continue to be ventilated. Pupils will also continue to enter and leave the school dining and play areas at different.

Teenagers will be vaccinated

It is likely most teenagers will have had at least one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine by the start of the new academic year. If everything goes to plan, the 12-19 age group will be fully vaccinated in the first few weeks of the month.

However, the EMA has yet to approve a Covid-19 vaccine for the under-12s. They account for 11% of the population.

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Will the under-12s become a vector for the virus? So far, research shows most covid cases in children are minor or asymptomatic, and that children spread the virus less than adults. However, will that still be the case with the delta strain?

Manuel Franco, the spokesperson for the Spanish Public Health Society, explained: “We were not expecting such a violent fifth wave. We don’t know with any certainty if children can spark a new wave from the bottom upwards [in age], although last year this wasn’t the case.” In his opinion, returning class sizes to what they were before the pandemic is a mistake: “The delta variant is much more contagious, let’s see if we are doing it the wrong way round, and it is now when we should be reducing [classes] even more.”

Prioritising teens 

The priority is to speed up vaccination levels for children before the new school term starts again. 

“At the present the priority is to vaccinate children above 12 because those below that age fortunately have not shown serious complications if they have caught the virus,” said Joan Cayla, of the Spanish Society of Epidemiology.

In other countries, the logical move seems to be offering the jab to those under 12. Experts believe studies will soon prove it is safe to go ahead with this.

“The context will determine whether we go ahead and vaccinate children under 12,” said Rafael Bengoa, a former World Health Organisation (WHO) health systems director, now a director of the Institute for Health and Strategy in Bilbao.

“Organising a safe return to school has good arguments in public health terms. However, the most reasonable move seems to be to follow WHO guidelines and use vaccines for 10% of vulnerable people in lower income countries because that will also help to control variants.”

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