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ON THE GROUND

French teachers anxious as schools gradually reopen after Covid-19 lockdown

School employees prepare the refectory of the Rothschild school in the French Riviera city of Nice, southern France, on May 11, 2020, as schools in France are to gradually reopen with the partial lifting of the lockdown.
School employees prepare the refectory of the Rothschild school in the French Riviera city of Nice, southern France, on May 11, 2020, as schools in France are to gradually reopen with the partial lifting of the lockdown. © Valery Hache, AFP

Thousands of French schools started to reopen this week as the country emerged from an eight-week lockdown to contain Covid-19. Teachers prepared for pupils according to a strict protocol – with masks, hand sanitiser and markings on the ground for social distancing. But some worried that the measures might not be enough to keep staff and children safe.

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At Hazay primary school in Cergy, a suburb northwest of Paris, the staff briefing had to take place in the gym. “The classrooms are too small for a group of teachers, even a small one,” said the headteacher, Olivier Flipo, who is also a delegate for the UNSA trade union. This is one of many ways in which “we have to reinvent the school”, he continued.

On May 14, five teachers of the school’s 13 permanent staff members will welcome 39 of the 259 pupils back to classes. That is around 15 percent, in line with government guidelines. The children were chosen at their families’ request and on the basis of three criteria: the parents do essential work, the children have special educational needs, or a family situation requires the child's return to school. “A single parent who needs to go back to work, for example,” Flipo explained.

“It’s potentially dangerous,” Flipo said. “Except we don’t set the rules; the government says ‘the kids are going back to school’ and we follow the directives they set out.”

Each school implements these rules according to its means. “The directives went through the local education authority, then the inspectorate, then the local inspector before it was sent back to headteachers – you get as many bureaucracies as you get schools,” Flipo said.

‘Delusional’ sanitary measures

There was an even trickier situation at the Évangile primary school, in Paris’s northern 18th arrondissement (district): on Monday morning it emerged that the headteacher would be unable to go in to work because his wife’s health was judged to be at risk.

“We suspected as much, but it means that one of the other teachers will have to take over, because there’s a lot to manage with 30 pupils coming back,” one teacher said.

As the school reopened that day, the nine teachers (out of 12) who went back to work also learned that the education ministry had not, in fact, provided face masks.

“We had to use masks provided by the local council,” said Charlotte, a teacher of 7-8 year olds. The package finally arrived at the end of the morning – with just one bottle of hand sanitiser for the five classes. The school also lacked disinfectant wipes and tape for floor markings to facilitate social distancing.

In light of this situation, the staff at the Évangile sent a request to local education authorities for the school to be closed if supplies did not arrive on time.

Describing the sanitary measures as “delusional”, Flipo said that the situation put headteachers under “a great deal of pressure”. On a blog he uses along with 49 other primary school headteachers in Cergy, he found that stress was a big problem for his colleagues.

“It’s like a storm hits us whenever we’re faced with an issue,” he said. Despite everything, he says he is staying calm, give or take some spells of insomnia during which he “thinks a lot”.

Every issue that comes up prompts a series of meetings with the inspectorate and the mayor. Flipo is in constant contact with them, as well as with parents’ associations.

The idea of children going back to school with social distancing measures is bemusing, Charlotte said, “especially when you don’t have the right sanitary equipment”. She noted that the 30 pupils returning to the Évangile constitute just five students per class – half the proportion recommended by the government.

‘Anxiety-inducing’ environment

Charlotte was delighted at the prospect of seeing her pupils, but less so about teaching them in the context of the coronavirus crisis. There will be no possibility of playing in groups, for example: “The building blocks are finished, for now.”

Equipment is another potential problem, Charlotte continued. “My pupils will sometimes forget their pens,” she pointed out, noting that she plans to make small boxes containing supplies of them. But there are other risks, too: “When you’re 7, you’ll put your pen in your mouth, then drop it on the floor, then talk to the kid sitting next to you.”

This new environment will be “very anxiety-inducing for children”, Charlotte went on. “There’s nothing nice about it.” Although the government’s approach is aimed at fighting truancy, she suggests that it will not help: “We’re not going to take learning any further under these conditions; we won’t necessarily have face-to-face contact with our pupils so it will just be a matter of revision.”

Meanwhile there’s a palpable sense of fear among the teachers. Flipo – who himself contracted Covid-19 at the start of the pandemic – and Charlotte said they don’t feel it themselves. But it’s prevalent amongst his staff, Flipo said. “Many have anxiety in the pit of their stomachs.”

One of his staff members was so anxious about bringing Covid-19 home that she decided to stay there – with the inspectorate’s agreement – and teach remotely. “She had to avoid passing on her anxiety to her colleagues, her pupils and even parents,” Flipo said.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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