This Wednesday begins what will be the third school year affected by the pandemic with the meeting of the Education Sector Conference between the Government and the autonomous communities that will finish defining the conditions for returning to the classroom. It will also be the debut of the new minister, Pilar Alegría, who will meet for the first time with some Education counselors.
Government and communities agree that next year classes will have more students and less safety distance
And it does so with few expected developments with respect to what was agreed last May, but with doubts among education professionals regarding the convenience of the agreed measures, the possibility of executing them (“some are contradictory to each other,” laments a director of the Madrid institute) and also with very different realities between the different autonomous communities.
The agreement reached between the former minister Isabel Celaá and the communities –based on which we will work this Wednesday– includes different protocols depending on the epidemiological situation of the country and the intention is to prioritize the presence of all students. In the event that Spain is in a good situation (an incidence at 14 days less than 150, at 7 days less than 75 and with hospital bed occupancies below 10% in general or 15% in the case of ICUs) , the communities will be able to relax the measures of last year and reduce the interpersonal safety distance to 1.2 meters and the maximum number of students will be the one established by law. Last year the distance was 1.5 meters and, in theory, there could be no more than 25 students in each classroom.
If the situation of the pandemic exceeds the figures shown and Spain goes to alert level 2 or 3, the agreement contemplates increasing the distance up to one and a half meters and returning to semi-presence from the 3rd year of ESO. To date, nine autonomous communities (Aragón, Canarias, Navarra, Castilla y León, Catalunya, Euskadi, Islas Baleares, La Rioja and Madrid) and Ceuta are at least at alert level 3, which in principle implies the measures more restrictive of the agreement.
A different reality from May
The problem, warn directors and unions, is that the agreement for this course was made last May, when the epidemiological situation in Spain was better than the current one, and the communities assumed that this would be the still photo this September. But Spain is today in a cumulative incidence at 14 days of 318 infections per 100,000 inhabitants when three months ago it was 128 (two and a half times less), and although hospital pressure is lower than last year at this time, in some communities it is above the maximums that would allow the application of the most benign scenario. Fifth wave infections are on the decline, although the rate of decline has slowed.
The agreement is mandatory (if it is not modified this Wednesday), so, unless the situation of infections and income changes in two weeks, when the school year starts it is likely that several communities will do so in the more restrictive scenario, despite the fact that a good part of adolescents will by then be vaccinated or on the way to being so.
“The agreement seemed insufficient to us in its day”, assesses Maribel Loranca, secretary general of the educational section of UGT, “but now if we return to the ratios allowed by law, it is difficult to guarantee the safety distance”.
Last year, the security requirements and the limit of students per class led the regional governments to hire some 40,000 reinforcement teachers to apply splits in class. But this, with the forecast of the good scenario, the hiring will be much less, as announced (or not announced) by the regional executives. The unions are calling for an extra 70,000 teachers to be employed.
“With the teaching reinforcement last year it was a success to keep the centers open, but the presence of all the students could not be guaranteed. And this year we are not hearing anything”, warns Loranca.
Antonio González Picornell, secretary of the Federation of Associations of Directors of Public Educational Centers and director of the IES Pere Vitòria, in Alicante, concedes that “the fact of having had some centers without 100% attendance last year implies that this year, if they want to implement it for everyone and there is some unfolding, it implies hiring. ” In fact, this circumstance cannot be ruled out yet, despite the fact that there have been few announcements so far: regions such as Madrid rushed the hiring of reinforcements last year until the same month of September and even beyond.
The reality differs between autonomous communities, although concerns about the limitations of the space-teacher-student trinomial are widespread.
“With a presence of 100% and the two reinforcement teachers per center that they are going to send us in Madrid, there are two things that are impossible,” explains Esteban Álvarez, president of the Madrid Adimad institute directors’ association. “The reinforcements are insufficient for the individual plans that they ask of us and with 30 students per class the safety distance cannot be maintained. There are absurd situations such as having the children glued to the blackboard and the teacher not having their own space”.
In other communities, however, they have chosen not to go up to the maximums allowed by the agreement. In Castilla y León, the counselor Rocío Lucas has agreed with the entire educational community to maintain the measures of last year, when it was one of the few autonomies that maintained 100% presence while maintaining the distance of one and a half meters, although the ratios are not they went down in Secondary or Baccalaureate. Valencia is going to hire more teachers for Secondary than last year, and Galicia has also limited the number of students per classroom.
But the accounts are clear. With a minimum distance, in the good scenario, of 1.2 meters between students, each student needs 1.44 square meters of personal space, reflects Álvarez. If a standard classroom is about 45 square meters, a maximum of 31 students will fit, counting each square centimeter of the classroom (also the teacher’s platform). In the bad scenario, with a distance of meter and a half, 20 would enter. The ratio of Secondary is 30 students and that of Baccalaureate is 35, and some regions have already announced that they will return to them.
These and other doubts will be discussed at the meeting this Wednesday. Ministry sources explain that the starting point is still the May document, later updated with details, and that they hope to hear from the communities their plans for the return. The spokesperson recalls that the situation is significantly better in terms of hospitalizations, points out that the situations are very different between regions and recalls that vaccination is progressing at a good pace, in addition to the fact that last year the schools saved the course and avoided the closures. Are you going to pressure the communities to hire more teachers? “Both Celaá and Alegría have said, all reinforcements are welcome,” and recalls the COVID funds distributed among the communities.