In the Parisian suburb affected by Covid-19, “schools remain open at all costs – even without teachers”

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In the Parisian suburb affected by Covid-19,


                Vingt élèves ont perdu un parent à cause de Covid-19 dans une seule école de la banlieue parisienne, soulignant l'urgence sanitaire dans la banlieue négligée de la capitale française et exerçant une pression sur un gouvernement fier de garder les écoles ouvertes à tout prix. 
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                                    <p>Baignée par la canicule inhabituelle qui a soudainement balayé la France, Fatimata n'est pas perturbée par les caméras de télévision et les antennes paraboliques stationnées devant son lycée de Drancy, une banlieue nord-est de Paris.

In fact it’s pretty ” style“(Cool), says the 15-year-old student, leaning against the iron and concrete enclosure fence of the Eugène Delacroix high school.

The day is drawing to a close and yet Fatimata and her friend Basmala have only spent two hours in class. Under different circumstances, the girls might have enjoyed the free time. But at the moment, it is alarming.

“More and more teachers are calling in sick and not being replaced,” says Fatimata. “We are already weeks behind the program and it is only getting worse.”

The school fence may be keeping the cameras at bay, but Delacroix is ​​already under siege from within. In recent weeks, the coronavirus has spread like wildfire through narrow school hallways and unventilated classrooms, infecting staff, students and their parents.

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A sign in front of the entrance to Lycée Delacroix. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24
    </div>Le sort du lycée est devenu le symbole d'un débat de plus en plus houleux sur les mérites de la politique française des «écoles ouvertes», que le gouvernement a fermement défendue alors même que les infections augmentent dans plusieurs régions dont celle-ci, sous l'impulsion du soi-disant Royaume-Uni. variante du virus. 

“To stick to a political decision, the government actually agrees to let the virus gradually empty this school,” said a history teacher outside the school, fresh out of an interview in Italian with the local correspondent for La Stampa in Italy.

The teacher, who refuses to be named, is one of 30 staff to have slaughtered tools citing the threat to their health and that of the students. About 20 other colleagues have been infected since the beginning of March, which means that the list of missing teachers on the school notice board is growing day by day.

“The longer the list, the smaller the writing becomes,” notes Eric Finot, professor of French literature who has joined the protest movement. “Now you have to squint your eyes to make out the names.”

‘The government doesn’t care’

When Finot joined the school twenty years ago, Delacroix had his own doctor and two nurses. Now there is only one full-time nurse and another working part-time, looking after 2,400 students in a neighborhood hit by the third wave of the coronavirus.

Lycée Delacroix was forced to close a quarter of its classrooms after each reported at least one case of Covid-19, in accordance with improved health protocols applied to high-risk regions like this. In recent weeks, the virus has also infected the two vice-principals of the school and forced two-thirds of the assistant teachers to self-isolate.

One figure has been the subject of particular examination: about twenty students have lost a parent to the virus since the start of the pandemic, a grim record which explains why the cameras are there.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that these deaths were linked to infections at school, “in any case, the figure is a worrying reminder of the vulnerability of the local population,” says Aline Cottereau, a another of the protesting teachers.

Last week, Cottereau and his colleagues wrote a letter to President Emmanuel Macron to denounce the “alarming” medical and health situation at the high school. They demanded the immediate closure of the school and a temporary move to full-time homeschooling – a demand soon taken up by several politicians, doctors and fellow teachers in the greater Seine-Saint-Denis region around Drancy .

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Literature professor Eric Finot reads a letter from the Rectorate informing him that he must return to work or face a pay cut.
Literature professor Eric Finot reads a letter from the Rectorate informing him that he must return to work or face a pay cut. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24
    </div>Le département le plus pauvre de France métropolitaine, Seine-Saint-Denis, appelé familièrement le <em>quatre-ving-treize</em> ou <em>neuf trois</em>, après son numéro administratif, a été particulièrement durement touchée par les vagues successives de la pandémie.  Avec près de 800 cas pour 100 000 habitants, soit plus du double de la moyenne nationale, c'est à nouveau la zone où le Covid-19 se propage le plus rapidement.

While many residents of Paris and other affluent neighborhoods have switched to working from home, the capital’s poorer suburbs have provided most of the frontline workers who keep the metropolis running. The combination of cramped premises and a lack of doctors also left the local population particularly at risk.

>> Violence erupts in tense Parisian suburbs as brutal lockdown sparks “explosive cocktail”

“The pandemic has only exacerbated existing inequalities,” explains Marie-Hélène Plard, who runs a nursery school in Saint-Denis, the most populous town in the department, just north of Paris. “The shortage of medical facilities in the ninety-three affects everyone, including schools, ”she explains.

Plard says the number of cases reported in schools often underestimates the true scale of infections, with parents “under immense pressure not to report positive cases, forcing them to be trapped at home with their children and perhaps put their work in jeopardy ”.

Like other principals, Plard spends much of her time juggling classes as she scrambles to replace infected or isolated staff. She laments the government’s failure to implement systematic testing, noting that social distancing measures are particularly difficult to apply in preschools and primary schools. Likewise, his repeated requests to replace fixed windows and install air purifiers have gone unanswered.

“We always agreed that it was better to keep schools open than to leave the kids at home, but we should have been prepared for it,” she says. “Instead, schools remain open at all costs, even without teachers. The government does not care what is going on inside.

‘French exception’

France is very proud to keep schools open much longer than any other country in the European Union, a distinction which Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer hailed as a “French exception”. However, teachers ‘unions and medical experts have expressed dismay at the authorities’ lack of work to mitigate the spread of the virus, protect staff and lighten their workload.

>> Experts call for rethinking the open school policy in France in the face of the pandemic

Mathieu Logothetis, professor of history in Seine-Saint-Denis and representative of the SNES-FSU union, says his organization’s repeated calls to recruit more teachers and educators, to improve sanitation and to step up testing went unanswered. He hopes the government will at least change its vaccination strategy, which has so far ruled out quick blows for the country’s 900,000 teachers.

Under growing pressure on the subject, Macron told reporters last week that he hoped targeted immunization campaigns would be extended to teachers from April or May, although he remained without commitment.

“Teachers are on the front lines of the pandemic, but they are not protected,” says Logothetis. “The government seems happy to turn schools into nurseries as long as it helps keep the economy afloat.”

This is a point of view shared by Coleen Brown, an English teacher at Lycée Delacroix, for whom the health of staff and students is endangered “for purely economic reasons”.

Brown is dismayed to see her colleagues back in the United States being vaccinated even before schools reopen, when France has yet to offer teachers a blow. She is also shocked by the insufficient measures taken to protect school staff.

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<p>«La distanciation sociale est impossible, il n'y a pas assez de nettoyants, nous n'avons pas de gel partout et de nombreuses fenêtres ne peuvent même pas être ouvertes», dit-elle.  «Cela ne serait pas accepté dans une école privée et ne serait certainement pas accepté au ministère de l'Éducation.»

Don’t bite the swagger

The anger and frustration expressed at Delacroix echoed across Seine-Saint-Denis, as protesting teachers interrupt work in a growing number of schools also affected by the virus. Among them, the Claude Debussy College in Aulnay-sous-Bois, the shooting of Olivier Babinet’s film “Swagger” in 2016, a living representation of the untapped potential of some of the most dilapidated and ethnically diverse suburbs of Paris, so close to the capital and yet so far removed from the republican promise of equal opportunities.

Finding the right balance between cultivating this potential and protecting the health of teachers and students is a real dilemma for schools in Seine-Saint-Denis, explains Justine Brax, visual arts teacher at the Alfred Costes high school in Bobigny, for whom “ close schools by ninety-three would be a disaster.

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The Collège Claude Debussy, a college in Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the many establishments to have reported an alarming spike in infections.
The Collège Claude Debussy, a college in Aulnay-sous-Bois, one of the many establishments to have reported an alarming spike in infections. © Benjamin Dodman, FRANCE 24
    </div>Brax dit qu'elle a la chance de travailler dans un environnement spacieux et fonctionnel, où les mesures sanitaires sont beaucoup plus faciles à appliquer que dans la plupart des autres écoles de la région.  Son expérience de l'enseignement à domicile lors du premier lock-out de France il y a un an l'a mise en garde contre la répétition de l'expérience dans son lycée, un institut de formation professionnelle. 

“Distance learning just doesn’t work for my students,” she explains. “Some don’t have a computer or have dependent siblings, while their parents often can’t help. Many do not have the autonomy to work at home on their own. Instead, they thrive when they work together in our workshops in high school.

Back at Delacroix, the prospect of a return to full-time distance education arouses similar scruples among the students, already home-schooled part-time.

While giving credit to her teachers for working very hard to balance online and classroom teaching, Sarah *, 17, worries that her class will be too late if the school is closed. In fact, she says, “we’re already so far behind that I wouldn’t be surprised if they canceled the baccalaureate exams.”

At the same time, Sarah is worried about taking the virus home with her, while her mother recovers from the operation. This is the real priority, says her friend Joël, for whom health considerations take precedence over the rest. He adds: “If Macron doesn’t close our school after all of this, it really means he doesn’t care.”

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