As French schools reopen, minister scolds Covid-19 ‘obsessed’ critics, but teachers wary

France’s secondary schools reopened on Monday after a four-week break to stem the tide of Covid-19 infections. Some new preventative efforts have been deployed for the restart of classes, but critics say more must be done to secure schools lest the reopenings send cases, which remain high in France, climbing sharply again. The country’s education minister, for his part, says people should stop “obsessing » over the risks of contagion at school.

Speaking at a high school in a small town outside Nancy in northeastern France as it reopened on Monday morning, Prime Minister Jean Castex assured those assembled that « the virus is circulating very little » in schools. « Between the risks, including the possible health hazards, of keeping schools closed and the risks of reopening them, the balance tipped very largely in favour of opening schools, » Castex explained.

After priding himself on keeping France’s schools open in February despite the repeated warnings of healthcare professionals, President Emmanuel Macron finally shut them down on April 6 as a third wave, largely fuelled by the British variant, forced his hand. The school closure was the signature measure of France’s third nationwide lockdown – along with a post-Easter ban on travelling between regions and the closure of many non-essential shops.

Ultimately, for high schools and middle schools (collèges in French), much of the shutdown fell during the two-week Easter break, bookended by two weeks of distance learning.

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Kindergarteners and elementary pupils, meanwhile, were already back in class last week, having had only 3.5 days of remote learning before their Easter vacation. France has maintained an exceptional rate of in-person class time during Covid-19: the country closed its schools for just 10 weeks between March 2020 and March 2021 – all during its first lockdown last spring – compared to 28 weeks of complete or partial school closures in Germany and 47 weeks for the United States, according to UNESCO figures.

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By and large, healthcare and school professionals alike in France have advocated keeping schools open during the pandemic, but many have taken the government to task for not applying sufficient measures to stem the spread on school grounds. As schools reopen now, some of those concerns have been addressed, although critics warn the devil may still be in the details.

Self-tests by the millions

A key part of the reopening plan relies on testing. France has ordered 64 million Covid-19 self-testing kits, initially for use twice a week by primary- and secondary-school teachers and then, from May 10, for high school students to use once a week on a voluntary basis.

In kindergartens and elementary schools, less invasive saliva-based tests have been deployed. Now at a rate of 250,000 per week, the government is eyeing 600,000 a week by mid-May – a figure that represents less than 10 percent of kindergarten and elementary schoolchildren. But close observers say that just isn’t sufficient to keep a handle on the epidemic.

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« There aren’t enough and it isn’t regular, » Guislaine David, spokesperson for the Snuipp-FSU union representing kindergarten and primary school staff, told FRANCE 24. « A saliva-based test might be conducted in a school, but they won’t come back the next week. They aren’t sure to come back before the end of the year, for that matter. There aren’t the regular testing measures like in some other countries where elementary school students have self-tests, » she added, citing Austria as an example.

One case, one closure

Under the Covid-19 protocol in place as students return, a class will be ordered to close as soon as a single Covid-19 infection is confirmed, no matter the variant. In February and March, as cases rose across the country, the protocol in place had classes closing only after as many as three cases were confirmed – at times depending on whether the strain detected was the baseline, British, Brazilian or South African variant – a policy that critics deemed unwieldy and ineffective for safeguarding public health.

During the last week before schools closed at the start of April, a new one-case-one-closure protocol saw a sudden cascade of shutdowns, with 11,272 classes closed. By Wednesday of that week, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo had called for all schools to shut down noting the « very grave » health situation and the « very great disarray » in Paris schools, with 20,000 Parisian children sent home « either because they are ill or because their classes are closed ».

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A month later, France is still registering well over 20,000 confirmed new cases daily, nearly 29,000 people remain hospitalised and more than 5,500 are currently being treated by the country’s saturated intensive-care units. Admissions to each have nevertheless dropped 13 and 18 percent, respectively, over the past week. 

The 1,884 kindergarten and primary school classrooms shuttered last week under the one-case-one-closure rule were primarily due to Covid-19 infections contracted during the holiday break and confirmed only after children returned to class.

One precaution announced as kindergarten and primary schools reopened last Monday has already been withdrawn: Indoor physical education classes had been prohibited but that ban was quickly lifted, to the dismay of some experts concerned about the heightened risk of aerosol transmission inherent when indoor sports are played without masks.

« That’s always the problem with these [Covid-19] protocols from the ministry. Decisions are made and they are obsolete a week later, » David told FRANCE 24. « Closing a class after one positive case [instead of three] was a demand we made and one we think will really protect pupils. But we’re very afraid that, in a week, the protocol will go back to closing after three cases, considering what happened with gymnasiums and swim classes, » she said, a possibility the education minister suggested in an interview over the weekend should the Covid-19 situation improve. « These incessant changes are difficult to put in place on the ground, » explained David.

‘Stop obsessing’

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has long insisted that schoolchildren were more vulnerable to Covid-19 infection at home than they would be at school. But epidemiologists called the perception that schools had no part in Covid-19 contagion misguided – or even « idiocy », as prizewinning epidemiologist Dominique Costagliola, of the French National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm), put it. Many experts blame this false sense of security for hampering prevention efforts.

« People have to stop being obsessed by the role that schools play in infections, » Blanquer told the weekly Journal du Dimanche over the weekend. « It’s far from the primary factor, » the minister said, provoking a flurry of dismay from detractors on social media.

« That we’re in the midst of an improvement in the [epidemic] situation is notably thanks to the three weeks the schools were closed, the only new concrete [Covid-19] measure imposed in April, » tweeted Dr. Michaël Rochoy, a founding member of Du Côté de la Science (« On the side of science »), a collective of healthcare professionals advocating for methods of Covid-19 prevention.

In December, France’s Comcor study, conducted in part by scientists from the Pasteur Institute, showed that having a kindergartener at home raised a parent’s risk of infection by 15 percent and having a middle schooler increased it by 30 percent. That was before the demonstrably more contagious and more lethal British variant, now dominant in France, took hold in the country.

« It’s apparent to everyone, » said David. « We know that life in collective settings necessarily allows the exchange of everything, including viruses and germs. So since [schoolchildren] exchange lice, chicken pox and gastroenteritis, well, they exchange Covid-19, too. It’s inevitable. »

Vaccinating teachers still not a priority

Another new rule prohibits reassigning schoolchildren to other classes when their homeroom teacher is out sick. Amid a shortage of substitutes, if a replacement teacher cannot step in, pupils will simply be asked to stay home. Previously, they were parachuted into adjacent classes – instantly undermining the goal of creating insulated “class bubbles”. But new measures addressing the issue of ailing teachers underscore another problem: France has yet to prioritise vaccinating them.

Teachers’ unions including David’s Snuipp-FSU have lobbied for the nation’s million-plus primary and secondary schoolteachers to get the sort of priority status for vaccination that their colleagues enjoy in Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain, the United States and elsewhere – but so far to little avail.

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In mid-April, the French government announced with some fanfare that teachers over the age of 55 had been granted priority for vaccination – only for the unions to point out that vaccine eligibility had already been lowered in recent days to age 55, teacher or not. They also noted that teachers over 55 are a marginal population in France; they make up only 13 percent of teachers at the primary-school level, for instance.

Blanquer said over the weekend that 35,000 teachers over 55 had received a dose. He added that all schoolteachers would receive a first dose of vaccine before the summer holidays, which begin on July 7. But that pledge hardly entails being given priority: The government says all French adults will be eligible for vaccination on June 15. It also means putting off full Covid-19 immunity for teachers with two vaccine doses until well after classes empty for the summer. 

People queue outside a vaccination centre at the Vélodrome stadium in Marseille on April 29, 2021. © AFP / FRANCE 24

Union reps say teachers are trading tips on where and how to score access to the precious vaccines outside of official channels. « More and more of our colleagues outside the age criteria tell us they are managing to get vaccinated because vaccination centres wind up accepting them when they say they are teachers. So there is this sort of parallel channel for vaccination that illustrates the limits of the official policy, » Sophie Vénétitay of the SNES-FSU union of secondary school personnel told FRANCE 24.

« It’s makeshift solutions on a grand scale. We trade top vaccination tips between us. It’s a bit under the table. It’s pretty surreal. But, voilà, that’s the state of the vaccination campaign for the education system in France, » said Vénétitay, a high school economics and social science teacher.

Half-gauge, half-baked?

High schoolers returned on Monday on a so-called half-gauge system, alternating between in-person and distance learning. The novelty is that the same goes for some middle schoolers – those in eighth and ninth grades (13- to 15-year-olds) in the 15 French areas worst hit by Covid-19 infections.

« We feel these decisions are adapted to the current situation, » Philippe Vincent, general secretary of the SNPDEN, the top school principals’ union, told Agence France-Presse. « They resolve the issue of the canteen in particular, which remained the weak link (since students dine without face masks). But will they allow us to avoid a new spike in the epidemic? » the union leader wondered.

Indeed, half-gauge does not mean half-classes. Schools are expected to halve the number of students present in the building, but individual schools can choose how they achieve that goal, be it with half-classes or whole classes attending half the time. In practice, the guideline doesn’t necessarily offer more social distancing within a single classroom – while the room next door might sit empty. 

« It’s rarely half-classes, » Vénétitay explained. « We get the impression that it’s mainly about limiting any mingling in the canteen, which is always a good thing; we know that the canteen is the weak point in the health protocol. But if it winds up displacing the problem to the classroom, which in addition might not be well-equipped for ventilation, that really raises questions, » she said.

History and geography teacher Benjamin Marol told AFP that at the middle school where he teaches in Montreuil, in the hard-hit Seine-Saint-Denis department just northeast of Paris, there was disagreement about how to organise classes. In the end, it was decided that eighth- and ninth-graders would alternate mornings and afternoons, attending full classes every time. « So we will continue to have packed classes, » he lamented.

Blanquer recently expressed support for installing carbon-monoxide detectors, which can aid in preventing aerosol transmission in schools by flagging built-up exhalation in a classroom and promoting better ventilation. But the minister left the heavy-lifting – and indeed, the bill – to individual municipal authorities, creating a divide between haves and have-nots.

David’s Snuipp-FSU has been among those pleading for C02 detectors since September. She said Blanquer « is starting to hear what the scientists are saying and what we’ve been asking for ». But she suggests the minister’s persistent « denial » has gotten in the way of meaningful policy changes.

« He still thinks – he said it again – that there isn’t transmission at school, that transmission takes place in family settings and that schools are well-protected, » she said. « So having said that, he can’t also say that measures need to be put into place to secure schools. That dogmatism doesn’t allow for the right protective measures. »  

Union rep Vénétitay echoed that sentiment. « It isn’t about being ‘obsessed’ or whatnot. It’s just about recognising that the virus circulates in middle and high schools – all the more because for months we had a very light or even quasi-nonexistent protocol, and that fostered transmission in schools, » she said. « The minister needs to come out of denial. The virus doesn’t make a U-turn at the school door. »

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