COVID-19 IN FRANCE

French teachers accuse minister of 'endangering lives' as Covid cripples schools

French Education, Youth and Sports Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer
French Education, Youth and Sports Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer REUTERS - POOL

French teachers are taking the Education Minister to court for "deliberately endangering lives" as a spike in school Covid infections forces thousands of classes to close. The move comes as a study by French pediatricians finds that schools play a minor role in transmitting the virus.

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Debate over whether schools should close was rife ahead of Wednesday night’s speech by President Emmanuel Macron. It also comes amid contradicting figures over infection rates in schools, many of which have been forced to shut because of major staff shortages.

In a complaint against Jean-Michel Blanquer, a grassroots group known as the "Red Pens" (Stylos Rouges), made up of some 72,000 education workers, accused the minister of failing to protect staff in close contact with children “who spread the virus".

The complaint was received this week by the Court of Justice of the Republic, the only French body with the power to investigate ministers accused of offences while exercising of their duties.

"We are facing a minister who is in total denial of reality,” said Red Pens spokesman Nicolas Glière. “He told us we were in more danger at home than at school, that there were no cases in schools … while the numbers show that cases in schools are exploding.”

Numbers mismatch

The French health authority Santé Publique France, which is in charge of monitoring the epidemic, last week reported more than 57,000 new infections in people under the age of 20. However figures from the Education Ministry were less than half that rate.

While French schoolchildren are required to wear masks from age six, and classes are separated during mealtimes, the government has so far pushed ahead with its policy of keeping schools open.

As of Monday, classes have been told to close if a single infection is reported. Before that, three infections were required.

Denouncing the government's policy as “soft” – the Red Pens are demanding that schools be entirely shut in the areas worst hit by the virus.

"Children spread the virus and the schools are clusters … Closing classes for a few weeks does not kill anyone,” Glière said.

Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo on Wednesday pushed for schools in the capital to shut, citing a "very serious" health situation that she said had caused “great disorganisation" in education institutions.

"Already 20,000 pupils (in Paris) are not in class today either because they are ill or because the classes are closed," the Socialist mayor told BFM TV

Teacher Lise Genrault supervises a child washing his hands at the Roissy-en-Brie elementary school, outside of Paris.
Teacher Lise Genrault supervises a child washing his hands at the Roissy-en-Brie elementary school, outside of Paris. AP - Jeffrey Schaeffer

Children 'not vectors'

Despite reports of a third coronavirus wave sweeping through schools, a study by French pediatricians carried out on children aged 12 and under found that schools actually played a minor role in transmitting the virus.

The research, which involved some 4,000 children, was done over three time periods: last summer when the Covid variants had not yet reached France; in the months that followed when the variants began progressing; and in recent months when the variants have been dominant.

"Seven or eight times out of 10, the family was the source of contamination," said Dr Robert Cohen, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Créteil Intercommunal Hospital, who supervised the study.

"If we distinguish the contaminator, it is more often adults than children."

Cohen told France Inter radio that last week’s 31 percent increase in virus rates among children could be explained by the simple fact that more children are being tested.

“The more we test, the more positive cases we will have. But if you look at the positivity rate of the tests, it has hardly changed. It is less than 3 or 4 percent, he said.

The results of the study are supported by the French Pediatric Society. 

That society, along with the French Society of Medico-Legal Pediatrics, the Pediatric Infectious Pathology Group and the National Professional Council of Pediatrics, this week issued a statement calling for schools to remain open.

The pediatricians are instead asking authorities to begin a mass vaccination campaign for education workers.

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