On the evening of 12 March, president Emmanuel Macron announced the closure of schools in France.
This was a shock for teachers and parents – let alone children – not least because just hours earlier, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the national minister for education, had said on the radio that there were no plans to close schools.
If we were going to be expected to organise effective home learning, we should have been warned days earlier, but this is not how it happened.
School reopening in France
Then, in April, it was the same story. The president suddenly announced the reopening of schools on 11 May despite the fact that national exams had been cancelled, which had given us the impression that schools would not open again until September – as is the case in Spain and Italy, where the health situation is close to what we are seeing in France.
Once again, we teachers couldn’t understand the logic. The government was going directly against the advice of the conseil scientifique (the scientific group responsible for informing decisions about the Covid-19 pandemic), who recommended resuming classes in September. The president’s argument is that the current situation is widening the existing inequalities between children.
In my opinion, the real reason is that in order to announce the relaxing of lockdown measures and allow French people to return to work, the president had to find a childcare solution. We are not fooled: schools must reopen so that parents can go back to work.
Anxiety and anger
The news that schools were to reopen triggered a huge reaction and a lot of anger among teachers. In March, we had said that schools had to close because they are places where large groups of people are gathered together, making it easy for the virus to circulate. But in April, while the crisis is still ongoing, we are reopening schools supposedly for the good of the pupils.
We found it hard to imagine young children following strict social distancing and hygiene rules, which would deprive them of their freedom, especially after two months of lockdown.
Equally, we were afraid for our own personal safety. Gatherings of people are now allowed, but the group must not exceed 10 people. Bars and restaurants are still not allowed to open their doors. On the other hand, in schools, we are expected to accommodate 15 pupils in the enclosed space of a classroom.
Once again, it is not logical and this reinforces our belief that we have to reopen schools to “look after” the children of working parents, rather than to tackle inequality.
Should schools reopen?
So, should we have opened schools again on 11 May?
I think this date was too early because the virus is still widely circulating in France. Some schools have already had to close just a week after opening due to a positive case.
We should have waited a few more weeks.
Hygiene measures have been put in place in a rush and this is not good because there are still gaps in the provisions. The hygiene rules that we do have are so strict that they could perhaps be traumatic for young children who are no longer allowed to play with their friends. Their routines have been totally changed and they have lost their bearings. Children also have to constantly pay attention to their movements, which is a source of anxiety for them.
The right decision?
However, I can understand the necessity of resuming school for primary children. Our pupils are at an age where socialisation with other children is a very important part of their personal development. Children need to be around other children so that they can play, learn and grow.
I also see the argument for children who are academically less able. This was a big concern for us during lockdown.
That being said, I notice that among my pupils whose parents have chosen to send them back to school, very few vulnerable children have returned. In fact, it is the pupils who come from a fairly advantaged social background and whose parents work that are back.
I was personally rather against going back to school, because I could see that the crisis was still going on and thought that teachers would be taking a lot of risks with our health, given that everything was done in such a rush.
I only resumed lessons with my pupils yesterday, so I do not yet have enough perspective to say whether or not my fears were unfounded.
Happiness at seeing pupils
However, I can't hide my joy at being back with my pupils, even if I only have half of them in school. I was very happy to welcome them back. I try to joke around with them a lot to relax and reassure them.
The days have gone pretty well so far, but all my pupils have not yet returned. This week, I had four pupils on Monday and two Tuesday. Next week there will be a group of seven and a group of eight. We will see where we are in a few weeks.
What are the arrangements in French schools?
- In our school, there are five classes, who will return in phases over three weeks. It started with those aged 6 and aged 10 on 11 May, followed by those aged 9 years on 18 May and finally those aged 7 and 8 will return on 25 May.
- Since it was not possible to accommodate the maximum number of 15 pupils per class each day, because the classrooms are too small, my class has been split into two groups. One group of seven pupils attend all day Monday and Thursday. The other group of eight pupils attend all day on Tuesday and Friday.
- At our school, around 50 per cent of families have voluntarily decided to keep their children at home, which makes it easier to split the groups. This figure is similar at the national level.
- We have staggered school hours to manage the flow of pupils for entry and exit. Usually, our pupils arrive and leave all through the same gate. Now, we have made two groups and each group arrives and leaves by two different gates, to prevent children and parents from crossing paths.
- Once they are inside the gates, the children must line up on a green line drawn on the ground, spaced one metre apart from each other. The teacher calls the pupils one by one to go to the toilet and wash their hands.
- The pupils then go to their class, always respecting the distance of one metre marked on the ground by orange lines. Teachers allow pupils to enter one at a time and take a seat at their desk.
- We have on average eight desks per room, arranged one metre apart – allowing four metres square around each child. During lessons, pupils must remain seated and are not allowed to get up.
- It is also imperative that they have their equipment for the day; teachers can no longer lend equipment.
- They no longer have access to certain parts of the classroom, such as the library, and can no longer go to the computer room.
- Breaktimes have been staggered to prevent classes from crossing paths in the hallways or the playground.
- In the playground, children must always keep a distance of one metre between them. It is impossible for them to play together. To help the children, blue and orange dots have been drawn on the ground. They also must eat one meter apart during midday meals in the canteen.
- Overall, pupils must wash their hands at least eight times a day: arriving at school in the morning; before and after morning break, before and after lunch; before and after afternoon break and then in the evening before leaving school.
- Parents are no longer allowed to enter the building and must remain outside when they pick up their children. However, we now have municipal staff in school permanently, to clean and disinfect surfaces on a regular basis.
The writer is a primary school teacher in the Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region of France