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ANALYSIS: Is France right to keep its schools open during the pandemic?

As France considers once again tightening its Covid-19 restrictions, the country's schools have reopened after the holidays - contrary to the policy in several other European countries. So how much virus spread is there in schools in France?

ANALYSIS: Is France right to keep its schools open during the pandemic?
Pupils in French schools have worn face masks since schools reopened in September. Photo AFP

January 4th marked the return to school in France after a Christmas break where families across the country got together for the first time in a long time, following weeks of lockdown.

The period of holiday socialising will likely cause a future spike in Covid-19 numbers, scientists have warned.

But despite pushing back the dates of reopening not only restaurants, bars, but also cinemas, theatres and other cultural establishments, President Emmanuel Macron’s government decided against keeping children at home.

“The situation has shown that there was no particular infection in schools,” said Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer on December 20th.

 

Since schools reopened in September, the government has reiterated the message that keeping children in school was safe, both for the children themselves and their families. 

Other European countries – albeit ones that are currently in a worse Covid situation than France – have decided otherwise. The UK, Ireland, Germany, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands all have delayed returning children to the classroom.

So is France different, and – if yes – why is that?

1. What we know about children and Covid-19

“Children can be infected and infect others, so reopening schools means increasing the risk of infection,” Pascal Crépey, an epidemiologist at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Santé Publique, told The Local.

“What we know is that children are much less likely to be symptomatic. And when you are less symptomatic, you are less likely to be contagious.”

While research seems somewhat divided on this point, it is the opinion of France’s state health council, Haut Conseil de la Santé, that children are neither prone to become seriously ill from Covid-19, nor are they likely to infect adults.

The Council's stance is based on scientific findings that that young children have lower viral loads. This does not mean they are not contagious when they carry Covid-19, but it means they unlikely to develop severe forms of the virus. 

Scientists in the UK recently published a report that backed this up. It said up to 70 percent of children infected with Covid-19 could be asymptomatic, which means they could have the virus without showing any symptoms.

Professor Martin Hibberd of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told the Guardian that the proportion of asymptomatic Covid-19 cases was “probably more like 50 percent for those in secondary school while for boys and girls in primary school, around 70 percent may not be displaying symptoms even though they have picked up the virus”. 

Hibberd agreed that this could mean that children were also less likely to pass the virus on to others.

“It's a real possibility but we cannot yet be sure,” he said.

2. What we learnt from the second wave of Covid-19

Among the evidence that backs this up are the differences in the first and second waves of Covid-19 infections in France. During the first wave of the virus, the country kept schools closed throughout spring, only returning small groups of pupils back to class in June. Attendance was not mandatory, and anxious parents could continue to homeschool their children.

In September the government changed its strategy and reopened all schools with compulsory attendance. Too many children had fallen behind during the first lockdown, Macron said during a speech in which he stressed the crucial importance of education in reducing social inequality in France.

“It was kind of working,” Crépey, who has studied the impact of lockdown, said about the government's strategy to reopen schools. “We did not see a massive number of clusters in schools and it did not seem to impact the lockdown itself.”

In fact, the less rigid lockdown this autumn had roughly the same effect as the strict lockdown in spring in terms of bringing cases down to manageable numbers.

The below graph shows how the number of Covid patients in hospital fell sharply once both lockdowns were introduced. Hospital numbers is a more accurate comparison than case numbers, since testing has ramped up hugely between the first and second waves.

 

While schools reopened bars, cafés, restaurants, gyms and cultural spaces like cinemas and museums all remain closed and – until December 15th – people were only permitted to leave home for essential reasons.

But France did not simply reopen schools without restrictions. The government put strict health rules in place, with teachers and children over 11 years old having to wear protective face masks in school at all times (this was later changed to all children aged six and over). 

READ ALSO: What you need to know about France's Covid-19 health rules in schools

 

Later, universities closed and high schools introduced partial home schooling due to increased levels of viral spread in France.

3. What we know about Covid-19 clusters in schools in France

In his interview just before Christmas, Blanquer said “less than 0.2 percent of primary, secondary and high schools” had closed since the beginning of the school year on September 1st, which he called “a fine victory of education”.

Dozens of schools and hundreds of individual classes closed in France shortly following term start in September after they reported to have cases of Covid-19 among their pupils or staff. After the government raised the bar for closing a en entire school or class, the number dropped.

The most recent breakdown of Covid clusters in schools – in a weekly report from Santé Publique France published on November 12th – schools and universities accounted for 1,280 clusters out of 9,055 in total.
 
This was less than nursing homes for elderly (2,006) and private businesses (1,928), but more than health establishments (1,059), families (218) and public and private gatherings (445).
 
However France has 7,200 Ehpad nursing homes and 61,510 schools, according to government data.

In the same report, Santé Publique France said a November spike in Covid-19 cases in the age group 2-14 was “probably linked to the return to school after the school holidays” that autumn.

4. What we don't know

One of the main criticisms regarding Covid-19 transmission in schools is that there is little research breaking down the exact level of spread in educational establishments in France. In order to get that, there would need to be mass testing of pupils at random, in order to reveal the asymptomatic cases.

How big of a role schools play in spreading the virus has been rendered more uncertain by the new strain of Covid-19 virus discovered in the UK – later found to have spread to France and several other European countries – which scientists say is spreading more among younger parts of the population.

In a recent report, scientists at the Centre for Mathematical Modelling of Infectious Diseases at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine warned that a national lockdown imposed in England in November was unlikely to prevent an increase of infections “unless primary schools, secondary schools, and universities are also closed”.

Other scientists too have warned of the risks of reopening schools as Covid-19 rates are on the rise across Europe.

Antoine Flahault, a renowned epidemiologist and director of the Geneva Institute, which monitors Covid-19 in the world, warned European countries against repeating the same mistakes as in January.

“Let's not reopen schools in the beginning of January,” he wrote on Twitter. “Let's vaccinate, vaccinate first. Let's accelerate the vaccination.”

 

But the decision to reopen schools in France was calculated, Crépey said.

“One of the reasons schools are closed in the UK is that they are absolutely not in the same epidemic situation as us. The UK is facing a massive resurgence.”

“For the moment, France can afford to keep schools open, from an epidemic point of view,” he said, adding:

“Of course, if the situation worsens it could become necessary to close schools again.”

 

Member comments

  1. Multiple cases of Covid in nearby schools (SW rural France) and not only were schools not shut down there was almost no contact tracing and parents were told after the fact. Parents face prosecution if they don’t send their kids in despite teachers saying that – particularly for maternelle age children – it is almost impossible to stick to the health protocols. A terrible situation.

  2. I will be forever grateful for France’s sane approach to keeping schools open and putting a high priority on education.

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TRAVEL NEWS

Paxlovid, tests and isolation: Covid care for tourists in France

With travel opening up, many people are planning trips to France over the next few months, but the Covid pandemic has not gone away. Here are your questions answered on testing, isolation and medical treatment if you do fall sick while on holiday.

Paxlovid, tests and isolation: Covid care for tourists in France

Travel rules

Covid-related travel rules have mostly been relaxed now but you will still need to show proof of being fully vaccinated at the French border. If you are not vaccinated you will need to show a negative Covid test – find the full breakdown of the rules HERE.

Testing

Once in France if you develop symptoms or you have been in contact with someone who has tested positive you will need to get a Covid test.

The good news is that testing is widely available in France, both for residents and tourists.

The easiest way to get a test is head to a pharmacy, most of which offer the rapid-result antigen test on a walk-in basis Tests are available to everyone who wants one, there is no need to fulfill any set criteria.

For full details on how to get a test, and some handy French vocab, click HERE.

The difference for tourists is that you will have to pay for your test, while residents get their costs reimbursed by the French state health system.

In the pharmacy you may be asked for your carte vitale – this is the health card that residents use to claim refunds. As a tourist you won’t have the card – you can still get the test, you will just need to pay for it. Costs vary between pharmacies but are capped at €22 for an antigen test or €54 for a PCR test.

Isolation

If your test is positive you are legally required to isolate, but how long your isolation period is depends on the your vaccination stats – full details HERE.

Treatment

For most fully-vaccinated people without underlying health conditions the symptoms of Covid are fairly mild, but if you do become ill, here’s how to access medical help while in France.

Pharmacy – one of the first things you will notice about France is that pharmacies are everywhere, just look out for the green cross. As well as selling over-the-counter medication, pharmacies all have at least one fully-qualified pharmacist on the staff who can offer medical advice. 

Take advantage of pharmacists – they train for at least six years so they’re very knowledgeable and they’re easy to access by simply walking into the shop. In tourist areas it’s likely that they will speak English. Pharmacists can also signpost you to a nearby doctor if you need extra help.

Doctors – if you need to see a doctor, look out for a médecin généraliste (a GP or family doctor). There is no need to be registered with a doctor, simply call up and ask for an appointment if you need one. If you have a smartphone you can use the medical app Doctolib to find a généraliste in your area who speaks English. You will need to pay for your consultation – €25 is the standard charge and you pay the doctor directly using either cash or a debit card.

You may be able to claim back the cost later on your own health/travel insurance depending on the policy.

Ambulance – if you are very sick or have difficulty breathing you should call an ambulance – the number is 15. All non-residents are entitled to emergency treatment in France, whether or not you have insurance, but if you are admitted or have treatment you may need to pay later.

READ ALSO Emergency in France: Who to call and what to say

Paxlovid – several readers have asked whether the Covid treatment drug Paxlovid is available in France. It was licenced for use in February 2022 and is available on prescription from pharmacies, mainly for people with underlying health conditions or an impaired immune system. You can get a prescription from a medical practitioner.

The drug is reimbursed for French residents, but as a tourist you will have to pay.

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