French teachers prepare for special ‘la rentrée’ amid Covid-19 spike, tensions

·5-min read

Middle and high school students in France will return to classrooms on September 1. But as the country’s daily tallies of new coronavirus infections rise, some teachers are concerned about the conditions they and their students will face, including heightened sanitary measures.

The daily levels of new coronavirus infections in France have been rising for several weeks, but the new school year (la rentrée scolaire) is set to start on September 1. Affirming that “education is more important than anything”, Minister of Education Jean-Michel Blanquer gave his assurance on August 20 that students would be welcome in class every day. He also announced that stricter sanitary measures would be in place, notably concerning face masks.

Wearing masks had been mandatory when physical distancing was impossible, but during this school year, all teachers and students over the age of 11 must wear masks in enclosed spaces even if distancing is ensured. Blanquer said that the rule can be adapted for outdoor spaces according to “local assessment”.

Schools will provide masks for teachers, while students must provide masks for themselves.

Masks may be removed under certain conditions

The minister specified that teachers will be able to remove their masks while giving lessons if they are two metres away from students. The latest version of this rule had indicated that a distance of one metre was necessary. “If [wearing a mask] interferes with a lesson, the possibility [of removing it] exists,” Blanquer said. “Wearing a mask can be a constraint for teachers, especially when they have to speak for hours.”

In close quarters such as cafeterias, libraries and even classrooms, physical distancing will not be mandatory when it’s “not physically possible or doesn’t allow for the accommodation of all students”, Blanquer said. The same principle will prevail in outdoor spaces like playgrounds.

However, the protocol requires that spaces must be rearranged in order to “maintain the greatest possible distance between students”, he said.

Despite these measures, teachers in France are questioning the conditions they and their students will face in September. The day after Blanquer spoke, Benoît Teste, the secretary general of the FSU, one of France’s main public service unions, denounced on television station LCI “a lot of vagueness about the organisation” of the return to school. “Many things are not ready and have not been clarified,” he added.

Several days before Blanquer’s announcement of the tighter health measures, the SNUIPP-FSU trade union asked for the decision to be postponed to the start of the school year so that teachers could prepare. The minister refused the request.

Teachers seek clarification

Some teachers have become impatient since learning of Blanquer’s announcements. “We have no information for the return to school, apart from what the minister said on television,” Caroline Louet, a history and geography teacher at Paul-Louis Courier high school in Tours in the Indre-et-Loire region, told FRANCE 24.

Sullivan Caristan, a French teacher at Jean-Jaurès middle school in Saint-Ouen in the Seine-Saint-Denis region just north of Paris, also cited a lack of communication. “I am worried when imagining the stress that we’ll experience in the face of this … absence of clear instructions,” he told FRANCE 24. “They’re giving us ambitious objectives” but no manual for achieving them, he added.

If all students return to school and the coronavirus epidemic in France surges anew, it may be difficult for teachers to manage full classrooms. “Students change classrooms because, since the reform of high school (instruction), they have been divided into different specialty groups,” Louet explained. She fears an “intermingling of students”, she said.

Inevitable physical contact

The limitation on physical contact risks being difficult to maintain in spaces outside classrooms. “In the hallways, students touch and jostle against each other,” said Louet, who is expected to accommodate thirty students in each of her classes.

With so many students potentially in class, hand hygiene will also be a challenge, especially with regard to resources. Caristan said that “there are not enough toilets” in his middle school and that “they are not in good condition”. Louet is concerned about “a waste of time” if students must wash hands at the beginning and end of each class period.

Teachers also must habituate their students to the mandatory-mask policy. “It will be complicated to make myself heard and understand what students are saying,” Louet said.

And then there’s the problem of foreign language instruction. “For learning Spanish pronunciation, the mask isn’t ideal, particularly for beginners,” Clémence Garcia, a Spanish teacher at Les Plaisances middle school in Mantes-la-Ville in the Yveslines region west of Paris, told FRANCE 24.

‘Students must return to class’

For these teachers, the return of students to the classroom is still a relief. “I have students who are experiencing social and family difficulties. So I prefer to have as many of them as possible in my classes rather than at home,” Caristan, whose school is located in northern Paris’s impoverished suburbs, said.

“The students have to go back to school because many have been left out during the (coronavirus) confinement,” Garcia said.

After a strict two-month Covid-19 lockdown that began in March, France’s primary and middle school students were allowed to return to class on May 11 on a voluntary basis. French government statistics showed that only 600,000 of the country’s 3.3 million middle-schoolers opted to return.

France asked all primary and middle school students to return to classrooms for a two-week period on June 22 before the summer holidays began on July 4.

The conditions for welcoming students back could evolve depending on the coronavirus epidemic. “If there is a greater circulation of the virus in a given territory, then we could take other measures, such as distance learning or (having) smaller groups of students,” Blanquer, the education minister, said. He is expected to speak again Wednesday on how the return to school will be organised. Worried teachers eagerly await his comments, which could come just a few days before classes begin.

This article was translated from the original in French.