In Spain, where schools have remained open despite a rise in coronavirus infections fueled by the highly contagious omicron variant, centers are reporting rising numbers of teacher and student absences and struggling to manage daily workloads with limited resources.
In some centers, educators teach two groups simultaneously, going from one classroom to another. Others spend long days replacing absent colleagues who have not been replaced because replacements have also fallen ill or are hard to find.
In many schools, it is not just the teachers who are conspicuously absent from classrooms, it is also the students. And it’s not just children who have tested positive, but also those whose families have decided not to send them away for fear of contagion, despite health protocols which recently determined that it was no longer necessary to quarantine an entire class of less than five positive cases. Increasingly, teachers are posting class work online because they don’t know how many students are going to show up.
Spain’s Ministry of Education and regional governments – which have delegated powers over education – issued positive messages last week in a bid to reassure teachers, students and parents that schools are safe. They argued that on average, only 3.2% of all teachers are staying at home, with a few regions seeing spikes of 5%. The unions speak of 6% and even 10% in some cases.
But the statistics hide very divergent situations depending on the centre. Vicent Mañes, president of Fedeip, the Spanish federation of public schools providing preschool and elementary education, said that so far there has been no shortage of staff at his school in Catarroja (Valencia). But at Dr Puigvert High School in Barcelona, the situation seems to be changing from hour to hour. “On Wednesday at 1 p.m., we received a call from a substitute teacher who had been assigned to our center,” says the director, Txeli Segué. “At 3 p.m. he phoned again to say he had tested positive for Covid.”
In this school located in the Sant Andreu district of the Catalan capital, the first week back from vacation ended with around ten teachers called sick with coronavirus (out of a total of 71) and around fifty students in isolation (out of 665). In a class of 15, the Spanish teacher had only two students on Friday; there had been a positive case the day before and most of the other children had decided to stay at home even if it was not compulsory.
One floor up, nine freshmen of Bachillerato (a two-year pre-college program) stared at their computer screens. Their tech teacher was not physically there, but instead taught the class from home after testing positive for coronavirus.
This particular school has seen it all, including the strange case of long Covid among teaching staff and even a death. And next week could be even worse: Marcela de la Rosa, the school secretary, estimates that at the current rate, in a few days half the staff will be infected.
At San Isidoro High School in Seville, 15 out of 62 teachers were staying home: six due to coronavirus infections, one from vaccine side effects, four due to long-term illness and four others who retired during Christmas holidays. Teachers had to replace absent colleagues, sometimes teaching two groups simultaneously. “I’ve been here three days and it feels like three months already,” said art teacher Lola Mena.
“They should send us home”
Students also feel concerned. Inside Barcelona’s Dr Puigvert school, a small group of teenagers stood in the hallway on Friday last week, refusing to return to class after learning there had been a positive case in their group . “We have to stay here all day but we’re scared because we don’t know if there are more positive cases in class,” said fourth-year student Andrea Rodríguez. “They should send us home.”
“We shouldn’t have started classes [in January], or at least they should have done PCRs on all of us,” added another student, Ismael Hussain.
The disruptions are affecting schoolwork, especially in view of the critical Selectividad university entrance exams that older students will take in June. “We’re behind with school,” confirmed Miranda Plantón, 17, who attends San Isidoro in Seville. “We do without language, geography and economics teachers [who teach a combined 11 hours a week].”
Last week, Catalonia reported 30,500 positive cases among students and 3,800 among teachers. There were 52,632 students in isolation (3.65% of the total) and 6,663 educators (4%). Although the regional government is insisting that substitute teachers be sent immediately, some schools have reported delays of several days in getting replacements.