'A French exception': Experts call for rethink of open-schools policy amid pandemic

·11-min read

A year ago on Tuesday, France took the extraordinary step of locking down schools nationwide starting March 16. Some stayed closed through May, others into June. But as the global pandemic ebbed and flowed in the long months since, France has stood apart – with its government taking pride in keeping schools open even while neighbouring nations closed theirs. Health and education professionals, however, say France's doctrinaire attitude towards schools needs some serious revision.

With Covid-19 infections on the rise, the UK variant outpacing the previous strain and ICUs overflowing, speculation is rife in France that a third lockdown is imminent, at least for the region surrounding the French capital. But the red line that President Emmanuel Macron and his government remain loath to cross remains clear: shutting down schools.

"Amid the comparisons, let's not forget what works and what we pride ourselves on: No other country in the European Union has left its schools open as much as France has," Clément Beaune, France's state secretary for European affairs, tweeted Sunday on the eve of a fresh lockdown in neighbouring Italy that included schools.

France has locked its schools down for a total of only 9.7 weeks since the start of the pandemic, according to a Unesco tabulation. A graphic from Le Parisien that Beaune appended to his tweet showed France behind only Belarus (0 weeks), Iceland (6.1) and Switzerland (6.4) in imposing partial or total school closures. Schools in Germany have been closed for 23.6 weeks and counting. Those in the United Kingdom were shuttered for 25.9 weeks – or half a calendar year. Italy will soon be adding three more weeks to its near 30-week tally, with Monday's new lockdown in effect through the Easter holiday. Further afield, school closures have also been a fact of life in the United States (43.1 weeks fully or partially closed) and Canada (36.7 weeks), according to the Unesco data.

'A French exception'

"It's true that it is becoming a French exception, but there is every reason to be proud of it," Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told France Inter radio earlier this month. "This crisis could be an educational catastrophe; I'm trying to spare France from that," he said.

Just as Ile-de-France, the region that includes Paris, began evacuating Covid-19 intensive-care patients by helicopter over the weekend to hospitals in Nantes, Angers and Le Mans, Blanquer reiterated his point to French daily Le Parisien. "School is the last thing to close, because it is the most precious institution [and lies] at the heart of society," he said. "So we can only close the schools once we have tried everything else and found that it hasn't been sufficient."

But throughout the second and burgeoning third waves of the Covid-19 pandemic in France, medical and educational professionals alike have expressed dismay at just how little else the French government has been willing to try to mitigate the spread of Covid-19 in schools. France has officially ruled out fast-tracking Covid-19 vaccinations for its 900,000 teachers while their colleagues in Italy, Germany, Portugal, Spain and the United States, to name a few, have been granted priority. Appeals to recruit more personnel to promote social distancing with smaller class sizes – or to equip schools with carbon-dioxide detectors to monitor volumes of exhalation in classrooms or air purifiers to allay aerosol transmission – have gone unheard.

In his primetime televised speech announcing school closures a year ago, Macron cited the wisdom at the time, saying the nation's children, from nursery schools through university, were being sent home "for one simple reason”: “Our children and our youngest, according to the scientists, are those who seem to propagate the virus most rapidly, even though children often don't have symptoms and, happily, do not seem to suffer from the most acute forms of the illness."

Closing the schools, Macron said, was aimed at both "protecting them and reducing the spread of the virus".

But by early May, as schools were poised to begin their gradual reopening, the official thinking in France had shifted diametrically. Education Minister Blanquer told French daily Le Figaro that the "latest medical studies show that primary aged children have low contagiousness".

Parents at the time didn't seem entirely convinced. In June, 56 percent of French people surveyed by the Odoxa polling firm disagreed with Macron's decision to make in-person attendance mandatory for the last two weeks of the 2019-2020 school year.

France's second lockdown in November spared schools, although France never did achieve the president's objective of bringing new infections down to under 5,000 per day, with the numbers plateauing instead before beginning to rise again in 2021. Blanquer continued to insist that children’s "risk of contracting the virus is higher outside schools", as he told Europe 1 radio on January 5. That same day, with the British Covid-19 variant wreaking havoc across the Channel, England shut down its schools.

Asked what might explain the French exception to school closures, education historian Claude Lelièvre cited the role of the school in French history.

"Since the French Revolution, the school as an institution is totally over-accentuated, accorded a quasi-supernatural role," Leliève told Agence France-Presse. "Every time an important problem arises, it is believed that it is up to the school to solve it."

Lelièvre observed that the "sanctuary" role schools have historically played means that "taking the risk of leaving schools open does not offend our collective unconscious".

'Idiocy'

Some top French scientists, meanwhile, have been taking offence. Prize-winning epidemiologist Dominique Costagliola of the National Institute of Health and Medical Research (Inserm) has not pulled any punches with the country's education minister.

"Saying there is no contagion in schools is idiocy," she told Le Parisien in December, noting that a false sense of security has offered officials an excuse to do nothing.

"I'm not criticising the decision to leave schools open, I understand that completely," Costagliola told Brittany regional newpaper Le Télégramme. "What isn't right is to pretend that nothing is happening in schools, because it leaves one free to do nothing – to not spend money. On the contrary, I think there are things we can do," she said, citing CO2 detectors and air extractors. "Proposals like these have been made but they have been refused because we are told that all is well."

Guislaine David, spokesperson for the SNUipp-FSU union representing kindergarten and primary school staff, calls Blanquer's contention "absurd".

"In a classroom there are between 25 and 30 children. In a family, there are never between 25 and 30," David told FRANCE 24. "It is an undeniable fact. It is not possible that the virus is circulating more in families than in schools."

"Since the minister does not believe the virus is circulating in schools, he didn't introduce a protocol to protect everybody. And now we see an explosion of cases in our schools," David said. The SNUipp-FSU's latest Covid-19 tally notes a 134 percent rise in infections over the last week among pupils and a 125.3 percent rise among personnel, with 833 classes shuttered (an increase of 64 percent). The union also flags a systematic discrepancy between official education ministry figures (3,941 cases), which rely on parents reporting their children's infections, and those from the public health agency, Santé Publique France, which consistently reports higher tallies (27,839 cases, combining 0-9 and 10-19-year-olds).

David believes that downplaying children's susceptibility to infection – and the delay in approving the use of less invasive, saliva-based tests until February – discouraged parents from getting their children tested for Covid-19. Children under 10 were rarely tested and the lack of data fed a false, if comforting, impression.

"I think our government's desire has always been to keep schools open purely for economic purposes; with children at school, parents can work," David said. She says the ministry's "nothing to see here" attitude resulted in a lack of prevention and mitigation measures, like the CO2 detectors and additional recruitment her union has lobbied for.

Some also blame the drive to keep individual classes open for a shifting, convoluted protocol on contact cases.

"If there is one Covid-19-positive child in a class, if it's the Brazilian variant, a primary school teacher is considered a contact case because it's a problematic variant. For other cases, the teacher is never considered a contact case, even though the teacher is always close to the pupils," David explained.

"For 10 days, we had a protocol that said that one Covid-19 case meant closing the class with the teacher considered a contact case, but 10 days later we were told, ‘Oh la la, wait – you need three cases for the British variant but one for the Brazilian’," she recounted. "It's complicated, because with the time it takes to test – to find out it's a different variant – it's completely mind-boggling. There can be 15 days between the moment there is a case, the time it takes to see there are several, and closing the class." The British variant, which studies have shown to be both more contagious and more lethal, now represents 67 percent of infections in France among individuals aged 19 and under.

"The [government's] essential objective is not to close schools, not to close classes ... but without regard for the health of personnel or the families," David argued. The SNUipp-FSU union does not favour shutting the school system down, but it is lobbying for the benchmark of a single confirmed infection to close a class.

"It's better to close one class for 15 days than to have 70 infected children and have it spread to the families," she said. "Health is our priority, above all."

'A rollercoaster'

Over the weekend, Blanquer did allow that it might be time to consider closing school canteens – where pupils gather daily, unmasked and en masse – calling them "the weak link in a pupil's day".

Dr. Jérôme Marty, a general practitioner in southwestern France who heads the UFML doctors' union, was beside himself listening to Blanquer's apparent concession on canteens. "We've been saying this for a year – a year!" he told FRANCE 24. Marty noted that he and a collective of fellow doctors offered a raft of suggestions to aid the government in protecting schools against Covid-19 last summer, but to little effect. It took until November for the government to institute their suggestion to lower the age for mandatory mask-wearing from 11 to 6 years old. Marty calls the shifting official discourse over the past year on whether children are more infectious than adults "a rollercoaster".

"There were five or six phases where they were saying they infect more, they infect less, etc.,” he said. “We (doctors) were very clear: At a push, who cares? What's important is the number," Marty told FRANCE 24. "You have 300 kids in a canteen, 300 kids spreading aerosols. Whether they contaminate a little or a lot isn't the issue. The issue is that they do infect each other and they will bring that home. And at home ... even if they are weakly infectious, since they are in close and prolonged contact with their parents for hours, they do spread the virus.” Marty said this assessment was simply a matter of what he called "the GP's down-to-earth common sense".

"As long as Blanquer and the [president] remain in denial about the role schools play in transmission, we will not be able to control the epidemic," Dr. Mahmoud Zureik, an epidemiology and public health professor at the University of Versailles-Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines outside Paris, tweeted on Monday. "In all departments (except four), the incidence among 10- to 19-year-olds is higher than the departmental average!"

Missed opportunity?

After Covid-19 case numbers remained at a high plateau throughout the start of 2021, a number of healthcare professionals suggested extending school holidays – known to precipitate a dip in fresh infections – as a relatively convenient way to stem transmission. Proponents included Jean-François Delfraissy, the head of France's Scientific Council, the panel that advises the government on Covid-19 matters. But the government ultimately declined to act on the suggestion. Today, some believe the current spike in infections and critical cases is the direct result of a missed opportunity over the winter break.

"If we had taken advantage of the [two-week] February holidays to lock down – adding one week before the holidays, one week after – it would have made for a four-week lockdown and would have done the trick," Marty said, speaking in particular of the four hardest-hit areas, the northeast, east, south of France and Paris area. "We'd have pushed the curve back down to 5,000 daily infections and had a much healthier base to work from going forward," he maintained.

"We saw that it was difficult for people to work remotely with children underfoot, etc., for weeks and weeks during the first lockdown, which lasted two months. But we had these February holidays," Marty lamented. "So now, thanks to having waited, we're heading for disaster."