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French parents torn as schools start to reopen after Covid-19 lockdown

Toys are disinfected at the Rothschild school in Nice, on the French Riviera, on May 11, 2020.
Toys are disinfected at the Rothschild school in Nice, on the French Riviera, on May 11, 2020. © Valery Hache, AFP

Nursing and primary schools start reopening across France on Tuesday as the government pushes for public life to resume after eight weeks under a coronavirus lockdown, with many parents deeply torn over sending their children back to the classroom.

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The French government has started easing some of the closure and home-confinement orders it imposed on March 17 to curb infections, with businesses permitted to reopen and residents cleared to return to workplaces from Monday.

Schools are one of the biggest flash points in the government’s reopening plans, with many parents torn over the question of whether to send their children back to the classroom starting on Tuesday.

Only nursery and primary schools are set to start up at first, and classes will be capped at 10 students at preschools and 15 elsewhere. Administrators were told to prioritise instruction for children ages 5, 6 and 10.

Due to the slow startup, as well as ongoing fears about Covid-19 in hard-hit France, school attendance will not be compulsory right away. Parents and guardians may keep children at home and teachers will provide lessons like they have during the nationwide lockdown.

Students with parents who want or need to send them to school are not guaranteed places in the smaller classes and only will be allowed to attend if their school can accommodate them.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer estimated that 80 percent to 85 percent of France’s 50,500 preschools and elementary schools will open this week. Secondary schools in regions with fewer virus cases are expected to reopen on May 18. A target date hasn’t been scheduled yet for France’s lycées, or high schools.

Given the ambiguous education guidance and uncertainties over spreading coronavirus, French parents are conflicted as they puzzle over making the most responsible decision.

Cecile Bardin, whose two sons are 6 and 2, said she thinks it is “too soon” to put them back in their nursery and primary schools in Paris.

“I am not reassured at the moment, because it will be very difficult to keep safe distance at school, especially for the little ones, who will want to play together,” Bardin told the Associated Press.

Mathilde Manaud and her partner are raising their 3-year-old and 7-year-old in Le Pre Saint-Gervais, in the French capital’s eastern suburbs. They agreed to send the children back to school if there are spaces.

“Truth is, we don’t know whether we are right to do so or no, we don’t know if it’s a mistake. We ask ourselves this question every day, and we change our mind every day,” Manaud said. “We are trying to convince ourselves that if they are reopening, they assume they can handle the situation.”

Returning students will find their classrooms running differently. Teachers will wear masks and remind children to social distance from each other and to wash their hands several times a day.

French President Emmanuel Macron sought to reassure parents and teachers while visiting an elementary school in a town west of Paris last week. Macron said schools would reopen gradually because he wants “things done well.”

The school's director, Mathieu Morel, warned the president that “children remain children. There are spontaneous moves which are hard to prevent.”

The school expects about 50 children out of an enrolled 181 to come back this week.

Some mayors in France have refused to reopen local schools just yet. Michele Berthy, mayor of the town of Montmorency north of Paris, sent parents a letter saying the government’s health guidelines were “unenforceable.”

“Although I’m for the relaunch of our economy, I am certain that public health must remain our priority,” Berthy wrote.

Mayors in other areas set local restrictions on enrollment, such as limiting school access to children of essential workers such as police officers and health care providers, and to families whose living conditions are precarious.

That’s the situation in Paris, where Ingrid Rousseau hoped to send the youngest of her two children, who is 6, back to school. She doesn’t know if her son will be allowed to go, even though both she and her partner are working.

Rousseau noted the fatigue of parents who have been overwhelmed with homeschooling, work and domestic duties for almost two months.

“I don’t feel quite up to the job of teaching,” she said. “We are swamped. We don’t have enough time. And we cannot do a big part of the activities they do in class.”

Paris officials estimate about 15 percent of the city’s students will be able to go back to school. Other towns and cities think they can serve about half of the children normally in nursing and primary schools.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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