It was a shock for teachers and parents – not to mention children – especially because a few hours earlier, Jean-Michel Blanquer, the national minister of education, had declared on the radio that it was not planned to close schools.
If we were to organize an effective home learning, we should have been warned a few days earlier, but that did not happen.
Reopening of a school in France
Then, in April, it was the same story. The president suddenly announced the reopening of the schools on May 11 when the national exams were canceled, which gave us the impression that the schools would not reopen until September – as is the case in Spain and Italy , where the health situation is close to what we see in France.
Again, we teachers couldn’t understand the logic. The government went directly against the advice of the scientific Council (the scientific group responsible for informing decisions about the Covid-19 pandemic), which recommended that classes be resumed in September. The president’s argument is that the current situation accentuates existing inequalities between children.
In my opinion, the real reason is that to announce the loosening of the lockdowns and allow the French to return to work, the President had to find a childcare solution. We are not fooled: schools must reopen so that parents can return to work.
Anxiety and anger
The news of the reopening of the schools triggered a huge reaction and a lot of anger among the teachers. In March, we said that schools should close because these are places where large groups of people are gathered, which facilitates the circulation of the virus. But in April, while the crisis is still going on, we reopen schools supposedly for the good of the students.
We had a hard time imagining young children following strict rules of social distancing and hygiene, which would deprive them of their freedom, especially after two months of confinement.
Likewise, we were afraid for our own personal safety. People gatherings 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 supposed to accommodate 15 students in the closed space of a classroom.
Again, this doesn’t make sense and it reinforces our belief that we need to reopen schools to “care” for the children of working parents, rather than tackling inequality.
Should schools reopen?
So should we have reopened schools on May 11?
I think that this date was too early because the virus still circulates widely 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 were put in place in a hurry and it is not good because there are still gaps in the provisions. The hygiene rules we 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 were totally changed and they lost their bearings. Children must also be constantly alert to their movements, which is a source of anxiety for them.
The right decision?
However, I can understand the need to return to school for elementary school children. Our students are at an age when socializing with other children is a very important part of their personal development. Children must be with other children in order to play, learn and grow.
I also see the argument for children who are less able academically. It was a big concern for us during the lockout.
That said, I find that among my students whose parents chose to send them back to school, very few vulnerable children have returned. In fact, it is the pupils from a fairly privileged social background and whose working parents are back.
Personally, I was rather against going back to school, because I could see that the crisis persisted and I thought that the teachers would take a lot of risks for our health, given that everything was done in such a hurry.
I only started classes again with my students yesterday, so I haven’t had enough time to say if my fears were unfounded.
The joy of seeing the students
However, I cannot hide my joy at being back with my students, even though I only have half of them at school. I was very happy to welcome them again. I try to joke around with them a lot to relax and reassure them.
The days have been pretty good so far, but not all of my students have returned yet. This week, I had four students 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 provisions in French schools?
- In our school, there are five classes, which will come back in phases over three weeks. It all started with 6 and 10 year olds on May 11, then 9 year olds on May 18 and finally 7 and 8 year olds on May 25.
- Since it was not possible to accommodate a maximum of 15 students per class each day, because the classrooms are too small, my class was divided into two groups. A group of seven students is present all day Monday and Thursday. The other group of eight students are present all day Tuesday and Friday.
- In our school, around 50% of families have voluntarily decided to keep their children at home, which facilitates the separation of groups. This figure is similar at the national level.
- We have staggered class hours to manage the flow of students entering and leaving. Usually our students come and go all through the same door. Now we have made two groups and each group arrives and leaves through two different doors, to prevent children and parents from crossing paths.
- Once inside the doors, the children must line up on a green line drawn on the ground, spaced one meter from each other. The teacher calls the students one by one to go to the bathroom and wash their hands.
- The pupils then go to their class, always respecting the distance of one meter marked on the ground by orange lines. Teachers allow students to enter one at a time and sit at their desks.
- We have an average of eight desks per room, one meter apart – allowing four square meters around each child. During lessons, students 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 enter the computer room.
- The breaks were staggered to prevent classes from crossing paths in the hallways or the playground.
- In the playground, children should always keep a distance of one meter between them. It is impossible for them to play together. To help the children, blue and orange dots were drawn on the ground. They also have to eat three feet apart during lunchtime meals in the canteen.
- Overall, students should wash their hands at least eight times a day: arriving at school in the morning; before and after the morning break, before and after lunch; before and after the afternoon break then in the evening before leaving school.
- Parents are no longer allowed to enter the building and must remain outside when picking up their children. However, we now have municipal staff at the school permanently, to regularly clean and disinfect the surfaces.
The writer is a primary school teacher in Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes