Spanish schoolchildren aged six and over must wear masks to class, the government announced on Thursday, unveiling a plan to reopen schools just days before the start of the new academic year.
With Spain registering the highest prevalence of the coronavirus in western Europe and diagnosing thousands of new cases every day, there had been speculation the new term might be postponed in the worst-affected areas.
But health minister Salvador Illa said that, while closing down schools could be necessary if multiple cases of the virus were detected across different classrooms, that would be the last resort.
“It would have to be studied on a case by case basis. This is not black and white,” he said at a joint news conference with the ministers for education and regional policy.
Since Spain came out of a strict lockdown at the end of June, transmission of the virus has rebounded fast. The health ministry diagnosed 3,594 new infections on Wednesday and has logged nearly 83,000 in the past two weeks. Nearly 29,000 people have died since the onset of the pandemic.
Asked whether concerned parents would have the right to keep their children at home, education minister Isabel Celaa said schools were safer than other places.
“It is mandatory to go to class. For anyone who is afraid, I must say that we have been working since day one for a safe environment,” she said, acknowledging there was no place with “zero risk.”
Besides mask use, children must keep a distance of 1.5 metres from each other, while primary school students will be assigned to small groups to take all classes and break times.
Prior to the announcement, Spain‘s 17 regions had prepared their own back-to-school plans, all featuring variations of mask wearing, hygiene measures and reduced class sizes.
Teachers, students and parents have criticised the central government for waiting until the last minute to announce the nationwide rules.