Starting May 11th, France’s schools and crèches would “gradually” reopen, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Monday evening in a televised speech to the nation.
This would be one of the first steps France would take into what the president called “a new stage” of the coronavirus epidemic – a “progressive” unwinding of the current strict lockdown.
Universities would however remain closed “physically until over the summer” although many are currently teaching seminars online.
Children have been confined to their homes since mid March when the government ordered all of the country’s schools, crèches and universities to temporarily shut down in a bid to tackle the rapid spread of the deadly virus.
A few days later, parents were ordered to stay home too, as France entered the nationwide lockdown.
For many parents who have juggled télétravail (home working) and supervising their children's homework, the president's announcements on Monday were long-awaited, very good news.
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Macron did not specify whether some areas of the country would see a return to normal before others, or if some age groups would be prioritised over others.
Teachers’ unions quickly expressed concern that they were not equipped to handle such a gradual return to normal.
“May 11th has been designated as a miracle day when all our problems will have been solved,” said Francette Popineau, Co-General Secretary and spokesperson of the largest teacher's union FSU.
“But we have a lot of questions. Will we have enough masks and hand sanitiser gel? How will we organise ourselves to have small enough groups?”
Her worries were echoed among other teacher's unions.
“Today, the majority of classes are extremely big, said Nageate Balahcen, national administrator of the French national parent-pupil federation (FCPE), to BFMTV on Tuesday.
“Sometimes they count up to 30-35 pupils at the time, how will we continue classes in these conditions while respecting protective health measures?” she said.
Children in France have been doing their school work from home for a month now. Many are very excited to get back to the classroom. Photo: AFP
Return to school 'not mandatory'
On Tuesday morning, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer sought to calm unions' fears by adding layers of nuance to the statements from the previous day.
“The word 'gradually' is very important,” Blanquer said about Macron's speech. “Everything won't happen from one day to the next,” he said.
— Info France 2 (@infofrance2) April 14, 2020
Furthermore, the return to school on May 11th would “not be mandatory,” Blanquer said.
The education minister did not specify whether the decision to send the children back to school would be up to the schools or parents, but said the government this week entered discussions with unions to thrash out “the steps to take.”
Full classrooms were 'out of the question,” the minister said. Especially small children, who did not understand the principles of social distancing, classes would needed to be taught in “very small groups,” he said.
Again the “methodology” would need to be elaborated along with the teacher’s representatives in the two weeks to come.
Blanquer said schools “very possibly” would get stocks of masks that they could distribute to pupils and teachers, but that it belonged to the list of “things to decide in the coming two weeks.”
All schools would not open at once, he said, adding that the lycées professionnels (technical colleges) could be among the first to open.
All establishments needed to be disinfected in the coming weeks, he said.
Teachers have been handing out homework instructions to parents during the lockdown. Photo: AFP
In an echo of the president, Blanquer said the “most socially vulnerable” groups of pupils would stand first in the line when the school gates would begin to open.
Reopening the schools was an important step to limit social inequalities, the president said in his speech.
“We need to save the pupils that are drifting away because of the lockdown,” Blanquer said.
Teacher's representative Popineau said the social argument was undoubtedly important, but said she suspected the government used it to “guilt” society into accepting the their decision more easily.
The going back to school was more likely, she believed, a decision the government had made to boost the economy.
“It seems like the school is being used as a big childcare service so that mum and dad can go back to work,” she said.
If children were to safely return to school, Popineau said, they would masks for everyone, but also “much more staff” in order to teach in smaller groups and access to psychologists who could help children who had suffered difficult experiences during the lockdown.
Popineau said that she and her colleagues “would love to get back to school,” but that they needed to be certain that returning to the classrooms did not represent a health risk for the population as a whole.
“We know that schools are a place of contamination,” she said.
“We need to be completely certain that this decision is safe and scientifically founded before we even think about reopen the school gates,” she said.