Stress for parents, masks for children as French schools reopen under epidemic

French President Emmanuel Macron chats to children in a classroom at Bouge elementary school, in Marseille, on September 2, 2021.
French President Emmanuel Macron chats to children in a classroom at Bouge elementary school, in Marseille, on September 2, 2021. AFP - DANIEL COLE

Twelve million French schoolchildren went back to school Thursday for a year the government hopes will be "as normal as possible" – despite fears of class closures, masks for six-year-olds and anxiety about the vaccination program for adolescents.


Updated at 12:30pm

Visiting a primary school in the disadvantaged northern suburbs of Marseille, where he chatted with students, President Emmanuel Macron was booed by a crowd who had gathered to demand his resignation.

Many schools in the southern port city are run-down and derelict, and Macron has promised to support the socialist mayor's plan for a billion-euro renovation project.

Parents and children across the country face a difficult return to the world of education, not least with the highly contagious delta coronavirus variant circulating among the younger population.

In a video posted on Twitter, Macron said barrier measures must continue to be respected, along with sanitary protocols put in place in schools.

Vaccination for 12-year-olds

Macron also said that students over 12 years of age will be able to be vaccinated in their schools, if they wish. Secondary schools are being transformed into vaccination centres, and "vaccination outings" will be organised.

Those under age 12 will be eligible for vaccination "as soon as the scientists say," he added.

While the start of the school year has led to fears of an increase in the number of infections due to the spread of the virus among children under 12, hospitalisations, contaminations and deaths are declining in France.

Keeping schools open

France has managed to keep schools open at primary level through much of the Covid epidemic. 

Last week, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer assured all concerned that "we can start this school year full of confidence”. Some parents, however, are far from sharing the minister's optimism. 

One mother of a six-year-old due to start in CP, classe préparatoire, where kids learn to read, told a reporter she was worried and disappointed at the government's insistance that masks be worn in class, even for six-year-olds.

She worries that the mask will interfere with her daughter's acquisition of reading skills, and with the teacher's ability to articulate the sounds corresponding to the marks on the page.

"Others managed to do it last year," she accepts, "so we'll hope for the best."

One positive case, whole class closed

Another worry for parents is the uncertainty about class closures.

The rule for primary schools remains as it was last year: a single positive case means that class concerned must close and all students stay at home for seven days. For families with two working parents, that will pose enormous difficulties in terms of child-minding.

Rodrigo Arenas, the spokesman for the FCPE parents' association, is harshly critical of the government.

"Once again," he says, "it's the parents who have to take up the slack.

"The closure after one case makes no sense in primary school," Arenas says. "We're going to send kids who are not sick back home when all we have to do is test them every day. Children need to go to school.

"And it's the parents in the most fragile positions who will be most under pressure. It's not easy to find a way of minding young children for seven days."

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