Bubble groups, a model to return to classes and minimize risks

Julieta is eight years old and is very excited about going back to school. She is about to enter the fourth year of elementary school and, after more than a year of attending virtual classes, it seems that this school year she will be able to take classes on-site. In her school, as in some other institutions, especially the private ones, they will apply a strategy inspired by European models. They are called bubble groups. What are they, what do they consist of?

What are bubble groups?

Bubbles are a model of school integration that seeks to reduce the number of infections by Covid-19, grouping students in reduced ratios, and without contact with students from other groups.

The term began to be heard for the first time in Denmark, the first country to reopen educational centers, and New Zealand, the one that has had the greatest success in the fight against the pandemic.

Although the advice of governments to stay at home and avoid large-scale social interactions remained in these countries, the population was allowed to expand their circle of contacts through “social bubbles”.

People had to continue…

Within the bubble of their home, with their nuclear family, but they could expand it to their extended family, as long as they all lived in the same town or city and formed exclusive groups.

People who were part of one bubble could not be part of another.

The model was efficient in increasing social contact and at the same time minimizing the risk of transmission; then it was replicated by other European countries to speed up the opening of schools.

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An option to minimize risk in schools

Pilar M. Samperio, Technical Director of the Educational Center Instituto Reforma explains, “What happens with the bubbles? They are capsules that keep the inside protected. And what happens when a bubble wants to join another? By nature it pops, they cannot coexist together. That is the principle of bubble groups”.

“This model has been applied in Spain with good results after the reopening of schools. It helps keeping the interaction networks of children perfectly identified and controlled, in this way, in case of contagion, the disease can be limited. The interesting thing is that the little ones that make up a bubble take care of each other, in addition to positively helping their social relationships”.

Pilar M. Samperio

Groups of maximum 15 students

The idea of having bubbles is to have smaller groups, with a maximum of 15 students per classroom.

The groups that are larger are “split”, and the social distance among desks is maintained.

“In the case of Julieta, for example, she will be in a bubble with only five classmates. She will not have interaction with groups from other grades, only the Spanish, English and computer teacher will be able to enter the classroom, only one teacher in each class”.

“Music and physical education will be given in the open areas. The bubble will go out for recess at a different time than others and we will monitor the children in each of their activities. Teachers, although they are already vaccinated, will be tested for Covid-19 regularly”, adds the educator.

The goal is that children feel relieved to return to class and re-interact with some of their peers, but in a controlled environment. Photo: Shutterstock
The goal is that children feel relieved to return to class and re-interact with some of their peers, but in a controlled environment. Photo: Shutterstock

Per Block, co-author of a study at the University of Oxford on new social distancing strategies, thinks this model has some advantages, since the stricter and longer the “quarantine” is, the greater the psychological and social cost will be.

“Reducing high-impact contact, rather than eliminating it in general, allows you to mitigate the social, behavioral and economic impact while maintaining a low risk of contagion. The reduction of strategic contact is more pleasant, allows greater adherence and helps release anxiety, especially in children, who feel trapped at home”, explains Block.

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Socialization within the group

The hygiene protocols of the students and the cleanliness in the schools in this model are impeccable, but the members that make up the bubble are allowed to mix with each other because, in the end, they are children.

It is important that we remember that these are schools, not prisons. They sent us the SEP Operational Guide that includes very rigorous protocols: children cannot leave the classroom and many other prohibitions.

Children must interact with each other.

We have many little ones who no longer want to leave their homes because of fear.

“By joining a group, other children will give the confidence that we as adults could not give. When they see their classmates taking care of themselves and others, that fear will decrease. Humans are social beings, mimicking and recognizing behaviors”, adds the school principal.

The success of the model depends on people complying with the rules and, as well as bubbles are formed in schools, families form social bubbles.

On the other hand, in public schools, where student enrollment is high, it will be difficult to reduce the number of students, but it is possible to opt for hybrid models of on-site bubble groups, alternated with distance classes.

Undoubtedly, these moments will leave us with many learnings as a society.

“The pandemic is a lesson for life. In my community there are children who have had to stay home alone because their parents have to go out to work and they have learned self-care. Children can teach us co-responsibility and empathy because they are the first to heed health rules and protocols. At this point, what matters is that they are well, that they feel safe”, concludes Samperio.

Translated by: Ligia M. Oliver Manrique de Lara

Spanish version

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