Classrooms are waiting for a further drop in the incidence of coronavirus to be able to leave masks behind

Whether or not it is convenient for children to wear a mask in class is an issue that has barely taken up space in the WhatsApp group of second-grade families at Les Bases public school, in Manresa ( Barcelona). But for Lluís Calvet, father of a seven-year-old student, it is an “incoherence”. “There are family gatherings indoors, open bars and now nightlife … Maybe it’s time to free the little ones too”, reflects this employee of the bank of 44 years.

At the beginning of the course, Calvet sent a letter to the Department of Education stating his reasons for relaxing measures, such as transmissibility is low at these ages and there is no data to show that more infections occur in children (from three to six years old, exempt from wearing a mask) than in primary schools (from six to twelve). “My daughter wears glasses, they fog up and she can’t see well, and she has trouble breathing, not to mention how important non-verbal communication is,” she points out.

On the way opens after the worst of the pandemic, the use of masks in educational centers is emerging as one of the last major issues to be resolved in the coming months. The challenge is to know when and how to do it to avoid spreading infections among the only unvaccinated population group and that this, in the worst case scenario, causes a new wave. Without the youngest children being aware of it, the routine gesture of covering their mouths with them has become a symbolic but important obstacle to the definitive return to normality.

Clara Prats , a researcher in Computational Biology at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC), divides the problem into three consecutive steps to take into account: the entry of the virus into schools, the transmission that it reaches inside and the possibility that the minors become a source of contagion towards the rest of the population.

Regarding the first, Prats explains that “the 70% of students are infected outside of schools, so the most important variable is to achieve a low incidence among the population ”. During almost the entire past academic year, the incidence at 14 days remained for above the 200 cases by 100. 000 inhabitants, with two months during the second and third waves in which it exceeded the 500.

Alumnos del colegioRaimundo Lulio en la localidad sevillana de Camas, el 23 de septiembre.
Students from the Raimundo Lulio school in the Seville town of Camas, the 23 September. PACO PUENTES (EL PAÍS)

The decrease of infections now achieved thanks to vaccines has reduced this indicator to less than 60 cases. Quique Bassat, epidemiologist and ICREA researcher at the ISGlobal in Barcelona, ​​considers that the “convenient” thing would be to remove the masks from the classrooms when the parameter is below the 25. “A low incidence ensures few cases and infections even though children are not vaccinated,” he adds.

Spain was one of the few countries that, despite the high incidences registered, maintained the classrooms open throughout the past year, an achievement that was possible thanks to the addition of bubble groups, masks, early case detection and quarantines. “This kept a low level of transmission in schools despite the high incidence abroad,” recalls Prats.

Although experts admit that it is difficult to know in what proportion each contributed to success. one of these measures separately, studies published in the United States show that schools that do not require their students to wear a mask are 3.5 times more likely to suffer outbreaks than those that do.

The fact that children are less contagious than adults also helped keep transmission levels low, a cushion on which the emergence of the delta variant spread a blanket of uncertainty. “The data does not show that infections are increasing in schools. There are no more confined classes now than a year ago. It is true that it is more contagious, but the measures to prevent its spread are the same and are working well again ”, explains Bassat.

Experts agree in ruling out that, with close to 80% of the immunized population, schools may become the focus of a new wave, even if with the withdrawal of masks there is an increase in cases in the centers. “We have the advantage that outbreaks among children are small and, with adequate surveillance, it will be possible to detect and contain them in time,” says Bassat.

In this scenario, consolidate the trend towards low incidence in Spain is emerging as the most important factor in making the removal of masks possible in schools. “We have to wait two or three more weeks to see that the return to education and work does not change the trend. Last year he did it, but then we still didn’t have the vaccines, ”Prats recalls.

The incidence of covid among children under 12 years, despite fears, it has continued to decline since the beginning of the course. This Friday was 102 cases by 100.000 population, 25 less than two weeks ago. “It is an important piece of information because now many more tests are carried out on this group than during the holidays. Each positive in a class leads to testing all the members of the bubble group and this allows detecting asymptomatic cases that went unnoticed on holidays ”, the experts note.

Prats also sees it possible to relax later other measures, such as quarantines: “Studies in the United Kingdom have shown that a daily test of students achieves the same effect as with quarantine, so children who test negative could continue going to class.” A more annoying measure for the minor due to the taking of samples but that avoids the great family, educational and social impact that the 000 days without being able to leave home.

Santiago Moreno, head of infectious diseases at Hospital Ramón y Cajal (Madrid), proposes to wait approval of children’s vaccines before removing masks. “They must be maintained until we are sure that the benefits of withdrawing them outweigh the risks they may cause. It is true that they can sometimes be annoying, but they do not cause any damage. On the other hand, we risk that the transmission of the virus between them increases a lot and in some cases they infect vulnerable people whose lives can be put at risk ”, he describes.

They wait for the moment they leave back masks is getting long for most families. The pandemic fatigue and the inconvenience that it entails make families and educational centers look forward to the news. During all this time, and although complaints have been frequent, in Spain no strong movement against its use in educational centers has caught on.

To Lluís Calvet, the answer that Enseñanza gave to His requests – they told him that it is the responsibility of Health and that they would transmit it to that department – did not satisfy him, but he has never considered that his daughter stop going to school. Since the course started, in Spain there have been five cases of absenteeism for this reason: two in the Balearic Islands, two in Extremadura and one in Andalusia. The first four were solved thanks to the mediation of the centers, and the last one is in process.

The Ministry of Education of the Balearic Islands explains that the only way to access an educational center without a mask It is with a medical certificate that certifies the impossibility of carrying it. “In the event that the family refuses to take their child to class, the absenteeism protocol is opened, the Police are notified and if the refusal persists, the Prosecutor’s Office is informed,” he says.

Clase del instituo Pare Vitòria de Alcoy en marzo.
Class at the Pare Vitòria institute in Alcoy in March. Joaquín de haro

In the Federation of managers of public nursery and primary schools – with more than 7. 000 associates of six autonomous communities— complaints about the use of masks have not appeared in any debate this course. Vicent Mañés, president of the organization, highlights that everyone would like them to disappear, but that “health criteria prevail.” At its center, in Valencia, all the teachers have paid for a small loudspeaker that is connected to a microphone attached to a headband (some 15 euros).

“We leave our voice behind, transparent masks are not fully approved and at those ages it is essential that students they see us vocalize ”, he says. In his case it is even more serious: “I am an English teacher, they have to see how I emit certain phonemes.” Despite the drawbacks, they have other priorities. “Yes we have discussed whether the European covid funds should have been finalists to force all the autonomies to maintain the support teachers,” he adds.

In the majority national association of relatives of students (CEAPA), its president, Leticia Cardenal, says that although the desire for them to withdraw from primary school is shared by the majority of parents, caution and trust in the health authorities prevail. They maintain the same position from the educational line of the UGT union.

Other regional organizations, such as the Catalan AFFAC, have a more combative attitude. “We have asked Enseñanza to review the measure, just as neighboring countries like France are going to do. , it is known that the incidence in children is very low and is more a measure for the gallery ”, says Lidón Gasull, the spokesperson.

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