Covid-19 in France

How France will keep schools open for the second year under Covid

Students are given hand sanitiser at the entrance to their school near Nantes. As last year, this and other protocols will remain in place, to try to stop the spread of Covid, as students head back to school 2 September.
Students are given hand sanitiser at the entrance to their school near Nantes. As last year, this and other protocols will remain in place, to try to stop the spread of Covid, as students head back to school 2 September. © Stephane Mahe/Reuters

France, which has kept schools open throughout most of the Covid pandemic, is about to start a school year under the shadow of the Delta variant. Some new measures are being introduced, including classroom air monitoring devices, but much stays the same as last year, with some wondering if the government should not be doing more

Advertising

“France is the country that kept its schools open the most,” said Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer Thursday, referencing the past 18 months of the Covid pandemic.

Speaking at his yearly back-to-school press conference, the minister laid out plans for the 2021-2022 school year, taking into account the country’s fourth wave of Covid infections due to the more infectious Delta variant.

"We can be serene for the start of this school year,” he said, even though “of course there will be problems and adaptation, depending on the evolution of the health situation.”

France’s 12.4 million primary and secondary school students, and nearly 870,000 teachers will, for the most part, return to classrooms next Thursday, 2 September, under many of the same Covid protocols as the previous year, with some changes.

“The situation is not the same as before,” said Blanquer. “We have the benefit of the vaccine.”

Since June, children as young as 12 years old have been eligible for vaccination, and the ministry says some 57 per cent of 12-17-year-olds have already received one jab. 

What is the protocol?

The goal is to close as few classes as possible, to maintain the consistency of students’ education, strategy of testing, protective measures and encouraging vaccination.

The minister previously stated that the health pass would not be required for students entering schools. He decided to apply the “level 2” protocol (out of 4), which would allow all students to be in class in person.

  • Masks: Starting from primary school, all students must wear masks indoors and in the schoolyards.
  • Ventilation: The ministry is encouraging schools to equip themselves with CO2 readers to monitor ventilation, and the government will help cities pay for the devices if they cannot afford them.
  • Testing: Primary school students, who cannot be vaccinated, will be tested regularly, with the goal of 600,000 saliva tests administered weekly, according to the minister.

    Middle and high school students will take self-tests and teachers will be provided with two per week, if they ask for them.

  • Vaccination: The government plans to set up temporary vaccination centres near schools and send out teams of volunteers to help those who want to get vaccinated.

Keeping classes open

France kept schools open throughout the 2020-2021 school year, except for a two-week period in the spring. But as infections went up and students tested positive, individual classes were closed for weeks at a time.

Blanquer said the protocol is intended to keep as many classes open as possible this year. As last year, the rule remains the same for primary schools: a positive case in a class means it is closed and all students must isolate at home for seven days.

For middle and high schools, if a positive case is detected in a class, only those who are not vaccinated must isolate for a week.

For many teachers and their union representatives, the measures laid out by the minister are not going far enough, in the face of the Delta variant.

Not strict enough for teachers

“The level 2 protocol is not enough. We should go higher,” said Guislaine David of the Snuipp-FSU, the main trade union representing primary school teachers, 

“This is a lower level than in June, whereas in June the Delta variant was not present, and there is an incidence rate that is higher than in June and in September 2020.”

David acknowledged that the vaccine will help teachers feel more comfortable, but she is still concerned because “the circulation of the variant will be very high among students.”

According to an Ipsos study ordered by the education ministry, 78 per cent of teachers have had at least one shot of the vaccine, and 89 per cent will be fully vaccinated by the start of the school year.

Unions have called for more diligence on school cafeterias, which David calls a “blind spot” in the ministry’s plan, where students mix and sit near each other.

And there are concerns about convincing parents to allow students to be tested. Only about 60 per cent of parents signed off on saliva tests last year.

“The minister has never engaged in communicating to families to explain what these tests are about,” said David, recognising that it is complicated for some families to accept a positive test and be required to keep a student home.

But the message needs to be clear that weekly, if not twice-weekly tests are required “to follow the evolution of the virus” and “to avoid contaminating parents or grandparents.”

Delaying back-to-school?

“We could have imposed a different protocol level depending on the department, but the health analysis lead us to make the decision to apply the same protocol to everyone,” said Blanquer, addressing concerns raised by some of the unions, which pointed out that the virus is hitting the south of France more than elsewhere.

“The situation is homogenising, as people return from holidays,” argued Blanquer, adding that “there will be certainly new measures in the future and depending on the situation.”

One example is France’s overseas territories, where infections are skyrocketing, and the decision was made to delay the start of the school year by ten days, to try to stop the spread of the virus.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning

Keep up to date with international news by downloading the RFI app