Millions of French children return to school after rescheduled Easter break

Millions of French children returned to the classroom on Monday as primary schools reopened after a three-week shutdown ordered to combat a severe third wave of Covid-19 infections.

Millions of French children return to school after rescheduled Easter break
French president Emmanuel Macron visits a school in Melun as classes restart. Photo: Thibault Camus/AFP

Primary schools and crèches reopened as President Emmanuel Macron’s government began easing restrictions imposed when France entered its third nationwide lockdown on April 3rd.

Secondary schools and high schools (collèges and lycées) have another week of distance learning before reopening to in-person teaching in a week’s time.

Restrictions on people travelling beyond a 10-kilometre radius of their homes will also be dropped on May 3rd as the number of Covid patients in intensive care falls.

Non-essential shops, bars, restaurants and cultural and sporting venues are expected to be allowed to reopen from mid-May, depending on the health crisis.

On a visit to a primary school in Melun, about 50 kilometres southeast of Paris, Macron on Monday said that an unpopular nighttime curfew starting at 7pm would also soon be “pushed back a bit”.

A more detailed announcement is expected later this week.

On the agenda: What’s happening in France this week?

The French government made keeping schools open a priority throughout a second wave of infections in the winter, arguing that schools help combat social inequality.

Between March 2020 and March 2021, French schools were closed for only 10 weeks, compared with 28 weeks in Germany and 47 in the United States, UN figures show.

Macron, who is expected to seek re-election next year, drew fierce criticism however for rejecting calls by medical experts to order a third national lockdown in late January.

Two months later, with hospitals under severe pressure, he imposed a ‘partial lockdown’, but the latest confinement period has been more relaxed than others, with people encouraged to spend time outdoors.

Figures show the situation starting to stabilise, with the number of patients in intensive care flattening out below 6,000 in recent days.

The peak of the third wave “appears to be behind us”, Prime Minister Jean Castex declared last week.

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New Covid wave in autumn ‘virtually certain’ say French experts

The head of the government's new health advisory body says that a surge of Covid cases when the French head back to work after the summer break is virtually certain.

New Covid wave in autumn 'virtually certain' say French experts

Immunologist Brigitte Autran, president of new government health advisory body the Comité de veille et d’anticipation des risques sanitaires (Committee to monitor and anticipate health risks) which has replaced the Conseil scientifique, told Le Parisien that “the Covid epidemic is not behind us” and said that the French would have to get used to “living with” the virus.

The Covidtracker website currently shows that the virus is in decline across France, with the R-rate currently at 0.7 – any figure lower than one indicates that the number of infections is falling.

Autran, whose appointment as head of the new body was confirmed on Wednesday, said that the most likely scenario was for a “new epidemic peak in the autumn”, when people return to work after the summer holidays.

“Will it be due to a new variant or the return of cold weather?” she said. “We are not soothsayers, but it is almost certain that there will be a wave.”

“Today, we must go towards living with it,” she added, reintroducing the French to an expression previously used by President Emmanuel Macron and several ministers.

“This does not mean accepting the deaths or the severity of the disease,” she went on, pointing to the fact that health authorities in France still have “levers to activate” to fight the virus. 

Despite the fact that nearly 80 percent (79.6 percent) of people over the age of 12 are fully vaccinated against the virus, she said that, “unfortunately there are still too many people who have not been vaccinated or revaccinated.”

And she said the new body would work with the government to improve the public’s access to drugs, such as Paxlovid, and vaccines.

Vaccination is still open to anyone who has not yet had their shots, while a second booster shot is on offer to certain groups including over 60s, pregnant women, those with health conditions or people who are in close contact with vulnerable people.

EXPLAINED Who qualifies for a second Covid vaccine booster shot in France?

The French government in August voted to end to State of Emergency that allowed it to impose measures like travel bans and lockdowns, although further restrictions could be put in place if cases rise again and parliament agrees.