Teachers in France Stage Walkout Over Covid Rules in Schools

PARIS – Teachers across France held a widespread day-long strike on Thursday to protest shifting Covid-19 rules that they say have disrupted schools and are now too lax to protect against the Omicron variant rampant across the country .

Tens of thousands of teachers and school staff, sometimes accompanied by the students’ parents, took part in marches in cities across the country in what appeared to be one of France’s largest school protests in decades.

The Ministry of Education said nearly 40 percent of primary teachers and nearly a quarter of secondary teachers were on strike, although school unions estimate those numbers much higher, at 75 percent and 60 percent. A leading union said it expected about half of all primary schools, or about 20,000 schools, would be closed.

“It’s all this annoyance and anger that has built up to this day,” said Sophie Vénétitay, a teacher and official for the leading high school union.

The strike, supported by most of the country’s education unions, posed a serious challenge to President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which prides itself on keeping its schools open longer than many other European countries during the pandemic.

“I am fundamentally convinced that the choice we have made to keep schools open is the right one,” Macron said at a news conference on Tuesday.

The school policy is part of a social contract that Mr Macron has bet France can live with the virus, limiting pandemic restrictions in exchange for high vaccination coverage.

But the rapidly spreading Omicron variant has partially disrupted that contract.

France now has an average of nearly 300,000 newly reported coronavirus cases per day, nearly six times as many as a month ago and far more than at any time during the pandemic. Olivier Véran, the country’s health minister, said: on Twitter that he had tested positive on Thursday.

The increase in infections is partly caused by school-aged children, who are now more likely than French adults to have the virus.

To avoid sending entire classes home or closing entire schools, the government created complex testing rules that confused millions of parents and teachers. It then changed the rules twice in a matter of days. The testing protocols led to writhing lines of annoyed parents and children out in the cold outside pharmacies and medical labs.

Hoping to stave off a wave of growing anger, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Monday protocols would be relaxed. Parents no longer need to pick up their children right away after a classmate tests positive, and potentially exposed children no longer need to be tested at pharmacies and labs to go back to class. Instead, the tests can be done at home.

But teachers said the simplified rules increased the risk of infections at school. They have also been complaining for weeks about a lack of equipment, such as air quality monitors, and shortages of highly protective masks.

The strike “shows the growing desperation in schools,” the leading elementary school workers’ union said in a statement. “The current protocol not only protects the students, staff and their families, but it also leads to a total disruption of the schools.”

The union has long called for a return to a rule introduced earlier this year requiring classrooms to close on the first confirmed case of coronavirus.

“They opened the school doors wide to Omicron and couldn’t care less about teaching staff,” a union of school leaders wrote on Twitter, following the announcement by Mr Castex.

Participants in Thursday’s march in Paris also expressed anger and exasperation at what they described as the government’s lack of preparation and anticipation two years after the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The epidemic must be contained, but the policies chosen are inconsistent,” said Louise Diego Taboada, an English teacher at a secondary school in a city southeast of Paris.

“We find ourselves enforcing a protocol, two days later it has changed, a new protocol and another,” she said as she marched near the Luxembourg Gardens, in central Paris. “We have no support, we have no resources.”

Ms Vénétitay, the representative of the secondary schools union, complained about the government’s handling of the pandemic, which she said has been erratic. “We learn things at the last minute, without really being consulted, while on the ground doing everything we can to keep the school going.”

Mr Macron acknowledged on Tuesday that there was “clearly a tiredness, a fatigue, a lot of restrictions” in schools and called on people to show “patience” and “kindness” in this crisis. Last week, he was much less conciliatory, using his foulest language yet to urge unruly, unvaccinated Frenchmen to get their injections.

The unusually wide response to strike calls on Thursday reflected the anger of school staff. Nearly all of the country’s school unions took part in the protest, as did a major parent federation, which called on parents to march side by side with teachers.

Hervé Dardillat, the father of a 5-year-old boy, said he attended the march to support teachers whose work “must be difficult” these days. He added that the coronavirus had caused an unprecedented level of anxiety at school.

“That’s all the kids are talking about now,” he said, referring to the virus. “I want them to dream and learn, just like before.”

Adele Shoemaker contributed reporting from Paris.

Leave a Comment