Unease with schools' Covid protocol as half of all pupil cases have come in past 10 days

Free voluntary antigen tests for close contacts offered as only unvaccinated teenagers must quarantine if in touch with positive case

A class of schoolchildren in Catalonia (by Albert Lijarcio)
A class of schoolchildren in Catalonia (by Albert Lijarcio) / ACN

ACN | Barcelona

January 20, 2022 11:42 AM

The Covid Omicron variant has led to an explosion of new cases in Catalonia, with half of all Covid-19 cases recorded since the pandemic began coming in the past three months – but in schools, this figure is even more extreme. 

As of January 20, a total of 244,741 positive cases have been recorded in schools since the first outbreak in early 2020, while almost half of them, 112,719, tested positive in the past ten days. This includes 101,077 pupils and 11,595 staff members. 

At the moment, 120,277 students and staff are self-isolating, a figure that could have been as high as 600,000 if the protocols had not changed after the Christmas period – from January 10, primary school students are only obliged to quarantine if five or more pupils in the same class, no longer just a single one, test positive. Primary school pupils have not been fully vaccinated yet as first jabs for those aged between 5-11 only began in mid-December. 

According to the Catalan health minister Josep Maria Argimon, having 600,000 students in self-isolation would lead to a "very serious work-life balance" issue – sick leaves are not usually accepted in primary care centers if the reason is to take care of a child who is quarantining. 

Union: protocol should go back to quarantines after one positive case

The current protocol has been brought into question after the current surge of cases. A major trade union in the sector, USTEC-STEs, said on Thursday that the protocol should go back to total isolation of a group class if one case is detected. 

"Did authorities think that the virus would not enter schools? No, Covid has entered and it is spreading like wildfire," spokesperson Iolanda Segura said. 

Schools are struggling to cope with the avalanche of quarantines and sick leaves of teachers, although the Catalan education minister, Josep González Cambray, said in a Rac1 interview on Thursday that all sick teachers are being replaced the day after they notify their positive test or isolation.

Antigen tests for students after positive case only voluntary

As for how to avoid transmissions when a student is positive, the protocol only recommends close contact classmates to do an antigen test in pharmacies – which, in turn, also fear being overwhelmed and recommend booking the test in advance –, or in primary care centers or similar for those between 0 and 5. Some delays in such tests have been reported.

The fact that tests are only voluntary has raised many eyebrows – as some Catalan News readers have recently made clear –, as well as the fact that antigen tests are free for all students except for unvaccinated secondary school students. 

Quarantines only for unvaccinated secondary school students

Indeed, quarantines are not the same for everyone either: self-isolating is not necessary for those fully inoculated of any age, as well as for those under the age of 12 – unless there are five or more positives in a group class –, but it mandatory is for secondary school students who did not get their doses. 

Some 20 families of unvaccinated teenagers have filed a lawsuit against the Catalan education ministry on the grounds that their "fundamental rights" have been violated since they are not allowed to attend lessons, as explained by their lawyer Lluís Gallego to the public broadcaster TV3. 

Yet, when questioned on the topic, minister González Cambray confirmed that their protocol is approved and will not change.  

Public health secretary, Carmen Cabezas, said in a press conference on Wednesday that "differentiating those vaccinated from those not vaccinated makes sense," adding that this is a joint decision not only by Catalonia, but by all Spanish territories and the central government. 

Spokesperson for teachers union Sindicat de Professors de Secundària Xavier Massó warned that a trend to boycott quarantines by unvaccinated teenagers is being observed and called on authorities for action.

Doctors lacking consensus over new protocol

The new protocol is not finding consensus among experts either. 

Epidemiologist Oriol Mitjà said on Twitter the situation is "out of control" and warned that anyone unvaccinated can develop long covid. "The idea that nothing happens if all children are infected needs to be countered," he added on Thursday, after some voices say the current protocol is designed to acquire antibodies for all children either by vaccinations or by contracting the virus. 

Mitjà is a member of the government's advisory group, as well as Doctor Toni Soriano, who asked him whether his solution was closing down all schools and said his arguments were the same as two years ago.