French high school students protest health conditions, police gas pupils in Paris

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Students and staff of some French high school demonstrated outside their establishments on Tuesday against what they said were inadequate health measures following the government’s decision to keep schools open during a new confinement.

About 10 high schools in Paris were sites of protests of students denouncing class sizes and canteen conditions in their establishments, which they said have barely been altered despite growing Covid infections and a new confinement.

One exchange at a high school in northeast Paris saw police spraying tear gas on a group of students outside the school.

The Paris rectorat said following police interventions, the situations calmed at the different schools and classes were held as usual.

Following President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement of a new confinement last week, the government said schools would be asked to limit intermingling of groups and respect physical distancing as much as possible.

“We’re in a high school with classes of 35 pupils, all crowded together,” Nora, a student at Sophie-Germain high school in Paris, told AFP agency.

“We’re in little rooms. The canteen is tiny, without ventilation and we take our masks off to eat,” said a classmate, Jules. “We’re asking for teachers to be allowed to split their classes into two groups. Also, maybe for canteen times to be changed so there are not too many students at once.”

Elsewhere in the country, about a hundred students sought to block Pasteur high school in the eastern city of Besançon, while several high schools saw protests on the island of Corsica.

Unions, officials warn of class sizes

If only a handful of schools were affected by demonstrations, concerns about class sizes and distancing led many teachers to walk off the job at other locations.

Public officials also warned about the situation is many establishments, including Valérie Pécresse, president of the Ile-de-France region around Paris, who expressed concern about “dozens of overpopulated high schools” in the region.

The Hauts-de-France region in the north called for an updated set of guidelines for its establishments, and teachers in the city of Roubaix near the border with Belgium went on strike.

For several weeks, some teachers’ unions have been calling for reduced class sizes and a system of rotation, a proposition so far ruled out by the government.

“The health context is serious, and school has resumed exactly as it did in September, when the virus was spreading much less,” said Sophie Vénétitay, deputy general secretary of union SNES-FSU, which has issued strike notices over sanitary conditions.

“The health conditions are not sustainable,” said Mathieu Devlaminck, president of student union UNL, which is advocating for reduced group sizes and a reduced curriculum.“If nothing is done, high schools will be closing in a few weeks.”

Health Minister Olivier Véran said at the weekend it was possible that high schools would close if the current confinement measures proved not to be effective enough.

(with newswires)