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France’s students go back to school amid concerns over Covid-19

A teacher wearing a protective face mask talks to students in a classroom at the Henri Matisse middle school in Nice, southern France, on September 1, 2020.
A teacher wearing a protective face mask talks to students in a classroom at the Henri Matisse middle school in Nice, southern France, on September 1, 2020. © Eric Gaillard, REUTERS
Text by: Sarah LEDUC
7 min

With school bags on their backs and masks on their faces, France’s students headed back to class on Tuesday at the start of a school year in the shadow of the coronavirus.  

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Some 12.4 million students in France returned to school on Tuesday, bracing for a year already clouded by Covid-19 and the restrictions imposed to avoid a resurgence of the disease.

The government has taken measures so that the year can begin “as normally as possible”, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said on Monday.

“School is mandatory,” Blanquer emphasised, adding that he considered the health protocol adopted by his ministry “simple and clear”, and reassuring parents and students that “in principle”, it was not expected to change much.

The protocol “is among the strictest in Europe, which allows us to begin the year as normally as possible”, he said during a visit to Mayenne, in western France.

Traditionally, parents of nursery school children have been allowed to accompany their children into class on the first day of school. Though he did not rule it out for this year, Blanquer reminded the public that “the idea is to avoid contact between adults as much as possible”.

He called on school principals to “be pragmatic”, and on Tuesday, many did open their doors for the parents of very young children.

Some principals even allowed the parents of sixth graders, who began middle school (or College) for the first time on Tuesday, to accompany their children, amid strict enforcement of social distancing and hand disinfection.

‘You just have to follow the rules’

"It's good they're starting back, getting back to a normal routine," said one parent, Stephanie, dropping off her daughter at her middle school in Saint-Leu-d'Esserent, north of Paris on Tuesday.

Asked if she was worried about the virus spreading in schools, she said: “Not any more than at the market. You can't stop living, you just have to follow the rules.”

As part of these rules, middle and high-school students (aged 11 and above) and all teachers will wear masks throughout the school day, even during break time, except for at mealtime and for outdoor sports classes.

The government will provide the teachers’ masks, but students have to bring their own, except in certain departments. Paris, for example, will hand out two cloth masks for each middle-school student on their first day (some middle- and high-school classes begin on Wednesday and Thursday).

Social distancing will also be enforced in the schools, as well as regular handwashing and disinfecting.

“There are bottles of disinfectant in various classrooms and auditoriums in the school, in the entrance, the amphitheatre, the canteen,” Justine Brax, a visual communications teacher at the Alfred Costes vocational high school in Bobigny, told FRANCE 24. “We are requiring everybody to follow strict hygienic measures.”

Middle- and high-school students will also have to wear masks in the canteen, except when seated at the table to eat. The education ministry has recommended schools offer several time slots for lunch in order to ease the flow and limit the crowds in the cafeterias.

In primary schools, where the students will not have to wear masks, break periods will be staggered to limit the number of children in the schoolyard.

Measures in case of an outbreak

Teachers, who began their year on Monday, have been instructed not to come to school and to get tested for Covid-19 at the first sign of illness. “We were asked to stay home if we had the slightest symptom,” Brax said.

Tests will also be conducted on any children showing symptoms, in order to “track the chain of contamination and to be able to take quarantine measures”, the education ministry said. The aim is to be able to act “within 48 hours each time symptoms are reported”, in order to test anybody who was in contact with the sick person.

The hope is that the measures will allow schools to remain open. However, in the event of a spike in Covid-19 cases in a certain geographical area, the schools of that area might reduce the classroom hours and go back to remote teaching for part of the time.

If the school itself experiences an outbreak of the virus, certain classes or, if necessary, the entire school could lock down and transition to 100 percent remote learning.

The decision will be taken “on a case-by-case basis, according to a strict protocol dictated by the health authorities together with the prefects and education boards,” Blanquer said.

“In the upcoming weeks, this type of thing will inevitably occur, so we shouldn’t consider it a failure or a problem. We should consider it a necessary consequence of our policy, which is to allow the students to go back to school,” he added.

Evaluating the students post-lockdown

Students of certain grades will undergo evaluations at the beginning of the year to measure their scholastic level following a school year interrupted by a lockdown of two months or more for some. Schools are also expected to offer special, personalised programmes for students who may have fallen behind.

“Our high school has set up a post-Covid evaluation to take stock, both of the positive and negative aspects of the period, " said Brax. "We’ll see what worked well with the remote teaching and how we can help students who disconnected back in March catch up.”

This article was translated from the original in French.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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