Over 12 million pupils in France have returned to school despite growing concerns over new, more contagious, variants of the Covid-19 virus and the country's tardy vaccination campaign.
While countries like the United Kingdom have delayed the reopening of primary and secondary schools after the Christmas break, France has gone ahead.
On Sunday, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer promised schools would reopen “as planned” with a “reinforced health protocol” including more tests in high schools.
“We are still capable of making adjustments in the future if necessary,” he told BFM TV. “We remain vigilant”, but “the return to school can be organised."
Some doctors along with parent teachers associations have questioned the wisdom of the government’s decision.
"As the situation worsens in the UK and Ireland, let's not make the same mistake as Italy during the first wave," tweeted medical professor Antoine Flauhaut. "Let's not reopen schools in January, but vaccinate, vaccinate, vaccinate first of all."
Even France’s public health chief Jerôme Salomon expressed reservations.
“Children are returning from different places, within France and from abroad," Salomon told the JDD newspaper on Sunday. “That could reshuffle the cards concerning the epidemiological situation.”
Describing the trend in numbers of contaminations as “preoccupying” Salomon also pointed to the risks linked to new variants of the virus identified in the UK and South Africa.#
“We are very attentive to what’s happening in schools and universities,” Salomon said.
Blanquer said the health protocol could be “accentuated” in schools and more tests would be carried out, but rejected the option of closing down schools like in the first lockdown from March to May 2020.
High school, university
The majority of high school students have been on a mix of remote and onsite learning since early November. One third have maintained onsite tuition but they are largely vocational high schools with a lot of workshop studies and lower class numbers.
Blanquer said he wanted all high schools to return to onsite teaching from 20 January. He insisted that “everything” would be done to ensure the “deadline is respected”, while taking into account how the virus evolves.
Most university students are currently distance learning but the government is keen to seen the most vulnerable back on site "as soon as possible". The favoured model is to have around 50 percent of student numbers on site at any one time, with groups of 10 students in tutorials.
The minister of higher education and research, Frederique Vidal, has asked university rectors to privilege students who’ve just entered higher education, and who are in a "very vulnerable situation”.
Blanquer said the action plan could vary from region to region.
“If the situation worsens in some departments we could take specific measures. At this stage, however, it is not envisaged."
On Saturday, the government tightened the curfew in 15 departments in the east and south east of France which are worst affected by the virus.
France speeded up its vaccination campaign over the weekend after it was heavily criticised, even by President Macron, for its slowness.
The vaccination of elderly people in care homes began on 27 December, and on Monday France launched the campaign to vaccinate health workers aged over 50.
The education minister said he hoped teachers, as key workers, could be vaccinated as soon as possible: "In March at the latest, it would be good if we could do that”.
Questioned about the government’s vaccination strategy, he said a lot of attention was being paid to “getting people’s consent”.