Back to school for millions in France as more Covid-19 restrictions lifted

Children wait to enter their classrooms in Strasbourg on June 22, 2020, as schools reopen in France.
Children wait to enter their classrooms in Strasbourg on June 22, 2020, as schools reopen in France. © Frederick Floren, AFP

Millions of French children returned to school on Monday after more than three months at home due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Pupils in kindergarten, elementary and secondary schools up to the age of 15 are required to return following a gradual reopening that began in recent weeks.

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French schools closed on March 16, a day before the country’s nationwide lockdown began amid the Covid-19 crisis. Despite the easing that began in mid-May and included the gradual reopening of schools, many schoolchildren have not set foot on school grounds in three months.

“I cried with joy when I got the confirmation from the teacher that my two children would be going back to school full time,” Noémie from Nice told AFP.

According to the latest figures from the country’s education ministry, only 1.8 million primary school children, out of a total of 6.7 million, have returned to school – and most not on a full-time basis. The figures for collège, France’s middle schools, are 600,000 out of 3.3 million.

On June 14, President Emmanuel Macron announced that the return to school on June 22 would be “obligatory" and would conform to normal hours of attendance except for France’s lycées, or high schools.

The return to the classroom has followed the easing of a strict health protocol initially put in place for schools. Starting Monday, there are no longer any social distancing rules for kindergarten children within their class groups. In primary schools, a one-metre social distancing rule is recommended. In middle schools, when the one-metre distancing is not possible, students will be required to wear a mask.

On Sunday, government spokesperson Sibeth Ndiaye called on parents to “have confidence” in schools. “Everything is being done so that their children will be welcomed safely,” she said.

'Two weeks isn't nothing'

Last week, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, who had said he hoped for a full return to school before the summer holidays, said the aim was to see “the most pupils possible” return to school.

Depending on the school, a return on Monday represents eight or nine days of class before the summer break.

“Two weeks isn’t nothing, either in educational or psychological terms,” Blanquer said.

Despite a loosened protocol, some education unions have suggested there will be “reception problems in some places”.

“We are exhausted by this period of demands and counter-demands,” a school principal in Rennes told AFP.

>> Read more: French teachers scramble to adapt after Macron announces surprise restart of classes

Others, though, seem pleased.

”Even though more children are coming to school, restrictions are being relaxed,” another principal in Rennes said. “It will be okay, even though there is now also the whole back-to-school [in September] to prepare,” she added.

For many parents, worn out by weeks of working from home while attempting to home-school their children, Monday’s return to class comes as a relief.

“At home, it was complicated for three months,” said Ghyslain Tinarage, a father of two children aged 10 and 11, who attend school in the southwestern Haute-Garonne, near Toulouse.

“They are clearly better off at school with their friends, even for two weeks. It brings back a bit of rigour. Otherwise it would have been six months of holiday and to recover that afterwards would have been difficult.”

But despite authorities’ attempts to reassure parents, other families remain nervous and plan to keep their children home on Monday.

While Macron declared the return to school would be mandatory, the education ministry has implied that there will not be penalties levied against families who decline to send their children back to class before the summer break.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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