As of May 26, France is reporting 145,279 confirmed coronavirus infections and 28,457 Covid-19 deaths, a per capita rate 30 percent higher than the United States. Despite the pandemic, French President Emmanuel Macron has ordered 40,000 primary schools to reopen. Two things stand out about this decision. First, as students and staffed returned to school, so did Covid-19, forcing 70 schools to close (as of May 18) after positive coronavirus tests. Second, as the return to school is not compulsory, only about 20 percent of students have returned, mostly from upper middle-class families, leaving immigrant, poor, and working-class students behind.
Marie-Hélène Duverger is a teacher in Rouen, France and a member of the New Anticapitalist Party (NPA). Here, she explains the why the premature return to school is putting students and staff at risk, both physically and mentally. This article was translated by International Viewpoint and republished by No Borders News as part of our international coronavirus coverage.
The return of middle school students in so-called “green” regions in France began on Monday May 18. And we are a long way from the “dropouts returning to school,” a phrase picked up after French Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer warned that 500,000 students would drop out if schools were not reopened on May 11. The results are quite the opposite!
In schools located in lower-income neighbourhoods, the return to school has taken place with “classes” sometimes reduced to two or three students, in an atmosphere that oscillates between that of a hospital and a prison, despite windows remaining wide open at all times — even when it is cold or if it is noisy outside.
What “health protocol”?
Students are allowed no, or very little, recreation, no possibility of physical contact, no touching of books or dictionaries, no use of pens or scissors, no school lunch, no group sports, no educational field trips. Schools are covered with “traffic directions,” security tape everywhere, liters of hydroalcoholic gel behind every door, masked teachers who must remain socially distant, teachers who are themselves stressed and not very enthusiastic.
This kind of “return” to school in no way allows for the re-appropriation of a collective place of learning, instead students are assigned to remain in the same place for several hours, it is often hard to hear them because they are wearing compulsory masks. And students are worried about not respecting “distancing procedures” and correct hand washing! The expression “health protocol” is no doubt envisaged by the Ministry of Education and its academic or departmental branches as something “reassuring” for staff, students, and their parents, but it is just the opposite.
This protocol is impossible to apply without transforming schools into military barracks and conceals major flaws in relation to the spread of the virus. The masks provided to college staff and students are not personal protective masks (FFP2, for example), and they are not even surgical masks. They are so-called “general public” masks, whose instructions clearly state that “filtration efficiency greater than 90 percent for particles of 3 microns emitted by the person wearing the mask.” This is proof that people wearing the masks are not protected.
Back to school whatever it costs?
The reason why is not difficult to understand as soon as you use one of these masks which seem as fragile as Minister of Education Blanquer’s honesty. There is what they call a significant “leak rate” because the masks are not airtight and, while part of the air breathed in passes through the mask and is filtered, a potentially significant amount passes between the mask and the face. Not to mention the fact that large-scale testing was not put in place before putting young people and adults back in contact with each other in educational institutions.
On May 18, Blanquer was forced to admit that 70 schools or educational establishments reopened since May 11 have experienced cases of Covid-19, but he had the nerve to claim that the sick people had not caught the virus at school, stating ““It’s inevitable this sort of thing will happen, but it’s a minority. In almost all the cases, this happened outside of the school.”
Move on (like the virus), there is nothing to see here! The first collective mobilizations took place timidly last Monday with strikes starting in some nursery schools where the application of social distancing is even less possible than elsewhere. There were also rallies outside school administrative offices and inspection centers to denounce the unsatisfactory conditions of the “return” and so on. We must draw a line in the sand quickly if we do not want schools to become barracks through which the second wave of the epidemic will sweep!
[For international coronavirus coverage and news and analysis from working-class and socialist points of view, read No Borders News.]