Spanish schoolchildren have borne the brunt of Covid-19 restrictions ever since the beginning of the pandemic. The initial lockdown, among the strictest in Europe, saw children forced to stay inside for three months. On their return to school in September 2020, those over the age of six had to wear facemasks.
Although the use of facemasks in Spain has not been obligatory since June where social distancing is possible, in schools they remain mandatory. Although the regional government in Madrid has relaxed the rule, allowing them to be removed in playgrounds, few schools have yet introduced that change.
Overall, the mask rule for children has faced relatively little resistance.
“Almost all children over the age of six have worn masks without rejecting it, they’ve normalised it,” Mireia Orgilés, who is the author of a study about the psychological impact of the pandemic on young people in Italy and Spain, told El Diario de la Educación.
“If we explain it to them well, they can understand it and follow the rules. A lot of the time they can accept it more easily than adults.”
There have been exceptions, with some parents taking a stand against facemasks. In Cáceres, two girls were given their own separate classrooms in September after their parents refused to allow them to wear masks.
The far-right Vox party has been the most vocal in opposing the measure for children and Llanos Massó, its spokeswoman in Valencia, has warned that “the imposition of continued use of facemasks by children could be counter-productive and affect their development.”
Psychologist Alberto Soler expressed similar concerns and told media that “we have exploited their resilience, believing that these measures wouldn’t affect them or that they could put up with this indefinitely…We are starting to see physical and emotional consequences in children.”
A major concern is communication, with masks making it more difficult to hear teachers or other children speak, as well as to understand them non-verbally. This can be a challenge for smaller children with speech difficulties who need guidance to improve their pronunciation. It can also be problematic for children on the autism spectrum.
“Children with neuro-developmental disorders, such as autism, find it even harder because their attention tends to focus on the mouth, so facemasks make communication and interpretation more difficult,” noted psychologist Miriam Sánchez-Hermosilla Villarejo.
Along similar lines, foreign language learning has become particularly challenging with the teacher’s face covered. “It’s very hard to teach pronunciation,” said Cinthya Lozano, an English teacher in Ciudad Real.
After more than a year of mask-wearing in schools, pressure is growing for a relaxation of the measure.
“We’re seeing the same thing happen as during confinement,” said Miguel González, head of the association of Andalusian headmasters (Adian). “Children are the last ones to benefit and we need to let them breathe.”
However, others are more cautious, especially given that the number of Covid cases in Spain is rising, albeit not as fast as in other European countries, and that under-12s are the only age group not to have been vaccinated.
Recent outbreaks in schools have been a reminder of how easily the virus can spread among children. Earlier this month 347 children and staff from a school in San Cugat, in Catalonia, were quarantined and in Getafe, in Madrid, 178 people from the same school also had to be isolated.
Manuel Sampedro, president of the organising committee of the convention of the Spanish Society of Extra-Hospital Paediatrics and Primary Care, believes the masks should stay on for now.
“I think it’s the best option because it would be very difficult to go back and do it again,” he told Spanish media. “If we take off masks in the classroom and then tell people to put them on again, it would be difficult for them to understand that.”