“I told her that I loved her and that I would always do my best,” Grace said.
It would be the last promise she ever made to her father, while he was intubated in an intensive care unit for Covid-19 patients. He died the next day, April 9 of last year, at the height of the first wave in France.
Grace’s world has been shattered. She told CNN that she dreaded going back to school in Seine-Saint-Denis, a northeastern suburb of Paris that was hit hard by the pandemic, last September.
When she returned, it was still the school she remembered. But for Grace – who didn’t want her last name published to protect her family – nothing was the same.
She was worried that the other students would treat her differently and was surprised when one of her classmates confided in her that she too had lost her father to Covid-19.
In all, at least 20 students from his high school, Eugène Delacroix, in the neighboring town of Drancy, lost a loved one to the virus in 2020, according to the town hall.
There is no evidence that these deaths were caused by infections at school. But CNN has spoken to Eugene Delacroix students who say they share a common burden: the fear of bringing Covid-19 home and infecting a loved one.
Open school policy
Besides a brief shutdown as the pandemic approaches, France has made its open schools policy a pride in the name of both reopening the economy and providing a social service, some parents relying on school meals to feed their children.
The government’s belief is that the benefits of opening schools far outweigh the costs.
“Let’s not forget what makes us proud. No other country in the European Union has left its schools as open as France ”, declared the French Minister for European Affairs, Clement Beaune, tweeted last March, a day before Italy closed its schools again due to the increase in infections.
France has only closed its schools for a total of 10 weeks since the start of the pandemic – one of the lowest rates in Europe, according to UNESCO figures, compared to Italy’s 35 weeks, 28 for Germany and 27 weeks for the United Kingdom.
During the first wave of the pandemic last spring, the government closed schools in March, before gradually reopening them in May and June.
“We need the children to go back to class because there is a risk that they will be left behind, learning gaps will appear and educational inequalities are exacerbated,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters at the meeting. a visit to a school in the northwestern suburbs of Paris. in May of last year.
In September, it became compulsory for the more than 12 million schoolchildren in France to return to class. Those 11 and over must wear masks, classrooms must be ventilated and social distancing is enforced in hallways and canteens.
Not all schools were able to comply with safety protocols, especially those in poor neighborhoods.
Colleen Brown, who teaches English to Eugene Delacroix in classrooms filled with 30 children, said the restrictions were impossible to implement at the start of the school year. Windows wouldn’t open, she said, some kids took off their masks, they lacked cleaning staff, and there was hardly any test for the virus.
“France may be exceptional in keeping schools open at all costs, but it has not been exceptional in funding schools so that they can do so safely,” Brown said. .
Despite Brown’s calls and the daily fear of entering the building, she said little had been done in terms of protective measures; the complaints she and other teachers finally addressed to school officials in January fell on deaf ears.
CNN contacted the Créteil School Board, which oversees Eugène Delacroix, but has not received a response.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told CNN he recognized that the policies put in place were not perfect.
Calls for closures
Meanwhile, in the UK, most children were learning at home after the government imposed a nationwide lockdown and schools were closed as the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in this country, was raging.
When this variant made its way in France and in its schools, the popular “Red Stylos” movement, made up of 72,000 educators, sued Blanquer. In March, they accused him of failing to protect teachers in close contact with children “who are spreading the virus.”
And nowhere has this spread been felt more keenly than in Seine-Saint Denis, then the most affected region in France, according to the Ministry of Health.
At the height of the third wave, as cases of the virus began to increase in Eugene Delacroix, a total of 22 classes had to close after students and teachers tested positive for Covid-19, according to the teachers’ union . Government policy was that three students had to test positive before a class was quarantined. This was reduced to one student in March 2021.
The teachers’ union sent an open letter to Macron and Blanquer denouncing the current situation and calling for “the immediate and temporary closure of the school”. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is considering a presidential candidacy in 2022, echoed their call and demanded that schools in the capital close to curb the spread of the virus, but no action has been taken.
Blanquer defended his open schools policy at CNN. He said he made a choice in favor of the children and their future.
“It was necessary for children to go to school, not only because of education and learning, but also for interactions with others and for psychological and health reasons,” said Blanquer. “It’s in the crisis that you show your true values and what is really important to us is school. This is why this crisis can be a (huge) challenge for all of us because there are a lot of downsides for the future but it is also an opportunity to be more aware of what is really important.
This strategy is reflected in Macron’s decision to suspend a strict lockdown in early 2021. He said the country must consider the impact on mental health and the economy when crafting a balanced response to the third wave.
But between January and March, the fear of catching Covid-19 became part of the school life of Eugène Delacroix’s 2,400 students, some students said. After losing her father, Grace feared that she would bring the virus home.
“We weren’t worried about catching it, but what if we caught it and brought it home and passed it on to a cousin or nephew?” You would feel bad even if it wasn’t your fault, ”she says.
Maëlle Benzimera, 17, who is dating Eugène Delacroix and lives at home with her parents, brother and sister, said she was also worried about infecting those close to her.
“I know if I catch the virus I’ll be a little sick, but I won’t be sick enough to go to the hospital. So that if my parents or grandparents have the virus, I know they could die or go to the hospital, ”Benzimera said. “I’ve been really scared since September.”
Vaccines for teachers
It wasn’t until April – in the face of the surge in infections, the rampant spread of the variant first detected in the UK, and warnings from hospitals that they might have to triage patients – that Macron announced a partial lockdown across France.
The president also ordered schools to close for three to four weeks, essentially extending the Easter holidays. Infection rates among those under 20 fell across the country in the following weeks, according to figures from the Ministry of Health.
Officials now say they are doing everything in their power to ensure schools can reopen safely, including rolling out saliva-based tests and vaccines for teachers over 55 – which does not represent that 16% of all teachers, according to figures from the Ministry of Health. Primary and nursery schools reopened on April 26 and high schools and colleges on May 3.
More than 15 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, or about 29% of the French adult population, according to the Ministry of Health. Macron has promised that a “specific strategy” will be implemented for teachers to get vaccinated in April, but those under 55 will not be given priority until June.
Some epidemiologists and scientists have questioned the government’s policy of keeping schools open as transmission rates rise.
They underlined the fact that children were clearly a vector of transmission and that closing the classes when a positive case appeared was not enough. To stop the spread, the entire school had to be closed.
Epidemiologist Catherine Hill argues that without large-scale testing, there is no way to know the level of transmission of Covid-19 in schools.
“It’s like trying to drain your tub with a colander. It does not work. It’s not a solution at all, ”Hill explained. “You close the classes where there is a positive child, but the other children can become positive at any time, so you will have to do it again, and if you make 250,000 children per week out of a population of 6.6 million people . [in primary schools], you’re not going anywhere.
With around 5,000 people currently being treated in Covid-19 ICUs across the country, teachers believe a return to school will only mean one thing: infection rates will rise – and they are still unprotected .
Blanquer admits the situation in schools “has not been perfect,” but says that ultimately giving children an education is a long-term goal the government was not prepared to compromise on. .