‘It’s too soon’ – Parents in France worry about sending children back to school in May

From May 11th, France will begin a progressive return to school as a first step to unwind the strict, nationwide coronavirus lockdown. But not all parents are thrilled about sending their children back to class.

'It's too soon' - Parents in France worry about sending children back to school in May
Only children of key workers have been allowed into school since the lockdown entered into effect in France. Photo: AFP

After three months of keeping their gates closed, French schools will begin to gradually reopen on May 11th, the date President Emmanuel Macron has outlined as the beginning of the end of the strict nationwide coronavirus lockdown.

EXPLAINED France's plan to reopen its schools after lockdown

When we asked our readers how they felt about sending their children back to school, many reacted by saying they were “worried.”

“It’s too soon,” Allison wrote.

“I don't think it's a good idea,” Sorana-Monica said.

“Just the thought of it makes me feel more anxious,” Karina said.

“Not sending mine back to the lycée, it's madness, it's like playing Russian roulette!” Karen wrote.

Several parents backed this, saying they would not send their children back even if their schools opened.

“I am waiting to find out how they are going to keep children a safe distance apart before I make my final decision,” one mother said.

“They are 9 and 13, they have years ahead of them to be educated, so quite happy for them to be homeschooled until the virus is controlled to some extent.”


'Gradual return'

On Tuesday, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer gave a general outline of how the government envisaged the reopening of the country's schools to happen.

“It won't be like going back to normal,” he said, stressing that the process would be “gradual,” spread over several weeks.

Final decisions would be firmly anchored in local conditions, Blanquer said, with regional and local authorities having a big say.

Regarding protective measures such as masks, the education minister said the government would issue a national decision.

Health issues

For some parents already suffering from pre-existing illnesses, the stakes were high.

That was the case from Barbara Diggs, a writer in her 50s suffering from chronic asthma.

Barbara, who lives in Paris, and said she worried about how her children would get to school. Both commuted by Metro – its usually crammed trains not ideal as a place to practice social distancing.

“I'm also worried about kids congregating once they're outside of school,” she wrote.

“They might be careful at first but it's hard to imagine them keeping a metre between them.”

Teachers are 'cannon fodder'

Both unions and parents have expressed worry that children, especially the youngest, will not know how to respect measures of social distancing even in very small groups.

“We know that schools are a place of contamination,” said Francette Popineau, Co-General Secretary and spokesperson of the largest teacher's union FSU. 
“When a child has wet his pants, a teacher must be there to help. When children play together, they touch each other,” she said, listing different scenarios where the so-called preventive gestures were not possible in schools.

“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.

Nicola Cameron, a lawyer, teacher and parent, said it would be “an enormous responsibility” on teachers “to try to keep our pupils safe and to a greater or lesser degree ourselves.”

She said her 15-year-old daughter “feels extremely unsure” about returning to school, “despite being desperate to get back to some degree of normality.”

“It almost seems like teachers are the cannon fodder, to enable the economy to reopen and parents to perhaps “have a break,” she said.

Homeschooling has been the norm in France since mid March. Some parents are longing for their children to go back to class. Photo: AFP

'I can't go to work if the kids are home'

Blanquer said parents would have the option of continuing to homeschool their children after May 11th, but did not specify how schools would verify if such a homeschooling was taking place or not.

Since school closed in mid March, many parents have been struggling to juggle working from home and trying to keep their children on top of their school work. For single parents especially, the task had proved quite exhausting. 

By now, many parents were eager to get their children out of the house.

“CAN'T WAIT!” one Twitter user wrote to The Local.


Will France be able to keep its schools coronavirus free after May 11th? Photo: AFP

“I can't go to work if the kids are home,” said Nate Caucutt, a father in Lorient, east of France.

Both he and his wife had jobs that did not allow for home working.

“France doesn't have much remote work capability, so I'm sure many parents are in the same situation,” he wrote to The Local.


His wife had gone back to work while Nate tried to help his 9 and 12-year-olds to keep up to date with their school work.

“Only one teacher hosts Skype classes for one of our kids. The rest is all independent study or learning with parents,” he said.

Most teachers email homework that children in theory should be able to do independently, but many parents have seen a lot of the burden fell on their shoulders.

“I enjoy helping the kids with their schoolwork, but not everyone is as fortunate as we are,” Nate said.

“If France is going to wait until September or later to try to reopen schools then there needs to be more effort online classes.”

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this article. Even if your story was not included in this piece we really appreciated reading your contributions. 

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Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

You might not have thought about it too much as you enjoyed an extra day off work, but it is perhaps unexpected that France - proudly secular since 1905 - has so many public holidays based around Catholic festivals.

Reader question: Why does secular France have Catholic holidays?

Reader question: Why does France have Catholic holidays like Ascension, Assumption and Toussaints? I thought it was supposed to be a secular republic?

The French Republic is very proud of its secular principles but yet as some readers observed, many public holidays are linked to Catholic celebrations, a reminder of its religious history.

Roughly half of the public holidays in France represent Catholic events: Easter, Ascension (May 26th), Assumption (August 15th), Pentecost (for some people), All Saints’ day (November 1st) and of course Christmas.

If you live in Alsace-Moselle (formerly Alsace-Lorraine) you get two extra holidays, both religious ones – Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) and St Stephen’s Day (December 26th) – more on why that is later.

France’s secular stance takes its roots in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen of 1789 but was formally codified into law in 1905. 

France does not recognise, pay or subsidise any religion. So French local and national governments are not allowed to finance churches, mosques, synagogues or temples, and religious symbolism is not allowed in State buildings or for representatives of the State.

It is these rules that mean that, for example, French primary schools don’t perform nativity plays at Christmas and French female police officers are not permitted to wear the Muslim headscarf while on duty.

EXPLAINED What does France’s secularism really mean?

The flip side of this is that freedom of worship is also protected in the 1905 law, and everyone is allowed to practice whatever religion they choose in their private life.

The only exception to the secular rules are the three departments of Alsace-Moselle. When the 1905 law was passed the region was part of Germany and only became French again at the end of World War I. As part of the compromise agreed, today bishops, priests, rabbis and pastors have the status of civil servants and the state pays for the maintenance of religious buildings. Religious education in public schools is also preserved.

So all that seems to pretty strongly suggest that Catholic festivals should play no part in France’s holiday calendar and only the secular events – such as the Fête nationale on July 14th or VE Day on May 8th – should remain.

However, by the time secularism was formally codified into law in 1905 there was already a fairly fixed calendar of holidays and festivals – although this had already been slimmed down under the Napoleonic government in 1802 – and suddenly axing popular festivals was likely to go down pretty badly with the population at large.

Essentially then, this was a pragmatic compromise between tradition and secularism and over the years politicians have been understandably reluctant to tell the French they must lose their holidays.

But it’s noticeable that all the religious festivals in the calendar are Christian ones, and while this may reflect France’s history it’s not so representative of the current demographics, where an estimated 10 percent of the population either practice the Muslim faith or have a Muslim family background.

So could we see a scenario when we knock Ascension on the head but make Eid a public holiday?

It’s theoretically possible – in 2015 the French parliament voted through an amendment that would allow the départments of France’s Overseas Territories (Martinique, Gaudeloupe, Mayotte, Réunion and French Guiana) to switch a Catholic bank holiday for another religious celebration to suit different faiths in the local population.

However none of the overseas départements has yet made that move. 

A fresh amendment would be required to make the same move in mainland France, and there appears to be little political appetite for that at present.

What are France’s public holidays? 

  • January 1st: New Year’s Day
  • Good Friday (the Friday before Easter Monday, only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)
  • Easter Monday (movable date)
  • May 1st: May Day
  • May 8th: VE Day
  • May 26th: Ascension Day
  • Pentecost (movable date and no longer an official holiday)
  • July 14th – Bastille Day
  • August 15th – Assumption
  • November 1st – All Saints
  • November 11th – Armistice Day
  • December 25th – Christmas
  • December 26th – St Stephen’s Day (only a holiday in Alsace-Lorraine)