“You’ve got your whole life to learn, but if you lose your health, that’s it,” says Aroa Miranda, a 37-year-old mother of two who won’t be sending her boys to school this week when the term starts again the coastal town of Castellon de la Plana.
Like its European neighbors, Spain is reopening schools this month despite the rapid spread of the virus, with the country recording the highest number of new infections on the continent.
“Going back to school is being treated like an experiment, we’re like guinea pigs,” said Miranda, who wants to remove her three-year-old from the list of kindergartens that is voluntary at his age.
“For my eight-year-old I’ll pretend he’s sick so I don’t have to send him to school.”
Although masks are mandatory in school for people aged six and over, and social distancing measures have been put in place, she doesn’t think this is enough.
“If I can’t meet more than 10 people in my house, I don’t understand why my son has to be in class with 25 children,” she grumbled.
“This is an absurd security risk.”
For weeks there have been a growing number of protests and petitions across Spain calling for better health and safety measures in schools.
An international Ipsos survey in July found that most Spanish parents would limit the number of school days. One in four prefers to wait four to six months before sending them back.
Given the concerns, authorities have switched between security guarantees and threats of sanctions.
“Back to school is safe,” said Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez on Tuesday.
“It is clear that there is no such thing as ‘risk-free’ during an epidemic, but there is one risk we can avoid: that of social exclusion when we are not going to school.”
Fernando Simon, the health ministry’s emergency coordinator, said nowhere is risk-free and children could catch the virus in the park by their cousins or by an adult who caught it at work.
“We can’t keep our children in a bubble,” he said in a remark that Education Minister Isabel Celaa repeated this weekend.
“The safest place is school and the benefits far outweigh the possible risks,” she told Spanish public broadcaster RNE.
Many fear that their children’s schooling puts older family members at risk in a country where one in four families lives with a relative over 65.
“I want to respect the law, but when I have to decide whether to save their lives, my parents’ lives or send my children back to school, it’s a piece of cake,” Pablo Sanchez, father of five, told AFP.
Others fear the economic repercussions if a child falls ill.
“If we had to be home for 15 days because of school, my husband wouldn’t earn anything,” said Miranda.
The Ministry of Social Security has raised the possibility of extending a vacation program for parents who are forced to adhere to a period of preventive quarantine.
But reluctant families could technically face much tougher sanctions of “between one and three years in prison,” the Madrid region’s education chief warned last month.
It remains unclear to what extent the authorities will follow the law.
“That is the question that everyone is asking,” said Pedro Caballero, head of a Catholic parents’ association, and examined the situation, which is fraught with legal uncertainties.
The Minister of Education has also requested a study on the application of sanctions without excluding them.
“I have to remind families that education is a human right for students, not their parents. And the authorities have a duty to ensure that this is respected between the ages of six and 16,” she told El newspaper Pais.
Miranda won’t be put off.
“If you want to come to my house to punish me, punish me, my children are what matter most to me,” she said.