Coronavirus: 'Primary school teachers in France feel abandoned'
In our region, classes resumed on 9 March after a two-week holiday, but, honestly, we were already concerned. We heard more and more about the coronavirus. We could see what was happening in Italy, particularly with the containment measures that had just been announced the same day.
In France, four departments had already closed all schools in response to the Covid-19 epidemic, yet we had to resumed our work. It was business as usual – almost.
It was recommended that children wash their hands several times a day. Our education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, guaranteed that closures would be dealt with on a case-by-case basis, but that there was no question of closing all schools in France, so we were told.
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On the other hand, we heard every day in the media that the number of infected people was rising sharply. Concern was mounting. On the afternoon of Thursday 12 March, our minister made it clear on the radio that the schools would not close. We were only in "stage two" of the epidemic.
That same evening, the president, Emmanuel Macron, made a speech on television. We expected him to tell us that we were going to go to stage three and the measures that would follow. But it did not happen. Indeed, in a serious tone, he told us that the epidemic had suddenly accelerated, even using the word "war".
The tone was set. This was followed by the announcement of the closure of nurseries, schools, colleges and high schools and universities until further notice the next evening, contradicting the words of the education minister just a few hours earlier. Everyone was amazed.
At around 10pm, our education minister finally appeared on television with a pallid face, for an impromptu press conference, seemingly overwhelmed by events. We learned that "educational continuity" should and would be ensured by teachers, through a platform provided by the CNED (our national centre for distance learning). Courses would be available for each level; teachers could even create virtual classes with their students.
We primary teachers were really caught by surprise because we didn't know anything about this work tool that our minister was speaking about. That evening, we called each other and stayed on the phone until late at night, to determine how we were going to organise ourselves, with everything being so sudden.
Honestly, when the minister had insisted that there was nothing to worry about, that things would carry on as normal for pupils, only through home learning, our reaction in primary schools was, "What is home learning?" We were angry, because he was suggesting that pupils could just pick up again at home, like many adults could with their work. That's just not true.
Indeed, we knew nothing: had no specific information. What's more, with 12 million students in France, we were convinced that the internet network for distance learning would be hugely disrupted because of the volume of connections – which proved exactly the case, within days.
What worried us most was that we knew that not all our students could access the internet and work remotely. In primary schools, we hardly work this way with pupils, unlike colleges and secondary schools.
We decided at our school to prepare photocopied worksheets for the next five weeks, mainly in maths and French, to ensure that everyone could continue to work. We also shared our professional email addresses with each parent, to stay in touch and help our pupils.
In the days that followed, we did try the ministry’s “My Class at Home” virtual tool, but it proved to be rather difficult without training for both us and our pupils. We have dropped this option for now.
Many parents are already working at home, so pupils often find themselves alone, staring at a computer or a tablet without any help. There is also no guarantee that all our pupils will be present when requested.
Each teacher is finding a way to work that suits him or her. Some send emails with work every day, others weekly. But it's particularly complicated to help by email when a pupil is having difficulties. I looked at creating profiles on Skype and Messenger so that I could make video calls with my pupils and their parents. For one girl, in particular, this has really helped.
In primary schools in France, teachers are not trained in distance learning – this is a form of revolution for most of us. Our local authority bosses are pretty absent just now. We feel a little abandoned, it must be said.
Our days are very busy because we have to answer the emails of each parent, prepare the rest of the work, send the corrections. We regularly call each other with colleagues to exchange ideas and find solutions to improve our work. We are starting to look at how to create a virtual classroom in case the lockdown continues. But this is not easy because our teaching is so disrupted and we're just getting by from day to day.
It's still very difficult to meet the needs of each child, because some children work very quickly and finish their work fast, whereas others take several days. While every student is on an equal footing when they are in school, we are now seeing a widening gap among our pupils. Parents find themselves teaching their children when they are not trained for it. Some do it well but for others it creates anxiety-inducing situations for both parents and their children. We must not forget that at this age, children still lack a lot of independence, and then there are those who do not have French as a first language, and those with disabilities.
Now, all these children are in a very heterogeneous situation, and it is a real challenge every day. We really can even speak of a revolution in how primary school is being done – but not everyone will cope equally well with that.
Everything is far from perfect because we can never do things as well as in class. We are learning every day to master digital tools for the young children we work with, but that can never replace the daily interaction of school under normal circumstances.
Yet, teachers really are putting all their heart into doing their utmost to find solutions for each and every pupil – with the aim that these unprecedented times do not leave permanent scars in their minds.
The writer is a primary school teacher in the Auvergne Rhône Alpes region of France
Secondary teacher: 'Nothing can replace face-to-face teaching'
Our management anticipated the lockdown better than some. Teachers were warned that it was essential to get ready. So I started distributing enough handouts to students to last until the Easter holidays.
When the lockdown was announced, there was only one day left to organise. How were we going to communicate everything? Most teachers have chosen an official digital workspace for teachers, called ENT (Espace Numérique de Travail).
I found this solution seriously lacking in interactivity and thought the site was likely to be quickly overwhelmed, which was exactly what happened. I proposed using Skype but most of the students did not have an account, so they suggested Snapchat because they already had a class group. I agreed to create an account and the students created a group specifically for my subject.
I insisted that the use of the group be for educational use only. I had no desire to know anything about their private business and the troubles that would come with that if I did! They are mature and able final-year students at a good level – but the Snapchat approach would not work at all levels.
I teach science. We made appointments during normal class hours to discuss the different work to be done, and students used photos and audio recording to show me their progress. These ways of working are well-known to students, so it's reassuring for them in this constant climate of anxiety about the impact of coronavirus. And students were already used to being assessed online, so there was nothing new there.
Of course, nothing can replace face-to-face teaching, especially for students facing some sort of difficulty or who lack independence. Overall, though, I think this whole experience will be enriching for them, especially as they head into higher education next year.
The writer is a science secondary school teacher in the Auvergne Rhône Alpes region of France