COVID-19 IN FRANCE

Classrooms close by the hundreds as France toughens rules for Covid cases

Beginning Monday, schools in France's 19 administrative departments with reinforced sanitary measures, including those in the Paris region as well as regions in the north and southeast, were obliged to close classes in the event of a sole positive Covid-19 case.
Beginning Monday, schools in France's 19 administrative departments with reinforced sanitary measures, including those in the Paris region as well as regions in the north and southeast, were obliged to close classes in the event of a sole positive Covid-19 case. Getty Images/PhotoAlto - PhotoAlto/Frederic Cirou

Unlike many of its neighbours, France has kept schools open since last June, preferring other restrictions to tackle Covid-19. But with epidemic indicators high in Paris and other regions, France’s government has tightened the rules that have led to the closure of hundreds of classrooms in recent days.

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During a week in which it seems the prospect of tougher restrictive measures are in the offering to respond to overloading hospitals in many regions, the prospect of school closures is looming large - especially around Paris.

Last Friday, the Education Ministry reported that although Covid cases among school pupils and staff remain at less than 1 percent the total of infections, the disease was spreading rapidly, with 37 more pupils and 39 more staff testing positive over the previous week. 

Classroom closures were already at their highest levels since schools reopened after the first wave of the epidemic last June, with 3,256 classrooms closed around the country, most of them in the Paris region, the north and the east. 

At the weekend, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer announced rules would be tightened for closing classrooms: Schools in France’s 19 administrative departments with reinforced sanitary measures would close classes in the event of a sole positive Covid-19 case. 

Classrooms close by the hundreds

In Paris, the new measures led 156 additional classrooms to close on Monday morning, and their number climbed to 275 during the afternoon, reported newspaper Le Parisien

Unions representing teachers warned this was just the beginning of a trend that would explode in the coming days. 

“Very few of the 608 schools of the department have not registered a case of Covid,” said Clément Peyrottes, spokesperson of the SE-UNSA union in the Val-de-Marne department, which comprises the suburbs southeast of Paris. 

“On Monday alone, 113 classes were closed, without having complete information,” he told Le Monde. “If a class per case closes, there will be 600 classes closed by Wednesday.” 

Covid closure versus mental health and school failure

President Emmanuel Macron will meet Wednesday with the top ministers comprising the health defence council, France’s top decision-making authority regarding the epidemic, to decide what measures to take.

The question of whether to close schools is often presented as a deliberation between minimising the spread of the coronavirus causing Covid-19 and the adverse effects on pupils’ education and mental and physical wellbeing. 

“Closing schools means once again exposing many children family violence, widening social inequalities and aggravating the distress and mental health of a population already very affected by this health crisis,” read a statement signed by the French Society of Pediatricians and three other groups on Monday. 

“Closing schools must be the last measure to take, when all others have failed,” it said, recommending first reinforcing testing in schools and privileging teachers for vaccinations.

But a recent study of the Pasteur Institute estimated that parents of junior high school and high school pupils were respectively 27 and 29 percent more likely to contract the virus, meaning the spread of the virus in schools contributes to its spread elsewhere, as well.

Blanquer said last week this was “very little” compared with the threat of school failure and that there was consensus to keep schools open, echoed elsewhere in the government. 

“We will only close schools as a last resort,” said Health Minister Olivier Véran last Thursday. 

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