PARIS — Teachers across France staged a widespread one-day walkout on Thursday to protest changing Covid-19 rules that they say have disrupted schools and are now too lax to protect against the Omicron variant that is tearing across the nation.
Tens of thousands of teachers and school personnel, sometimes joined by students’ parents, participated in marches in cities across the country, in what appeared to be one of France’s biggest school protests in decades.
Education ministry stated that almost 40 percent of elementary school teachers and nearly 25% of secondary school teachers were on strike. However, school unions have put these figures at 75 percent and 60% respectively. A leading union stated that it expected half of all elementary schools to close, or approximately 20,000 schools.
“It’s all this exasperation and anger that has built up to today,” said Sophie Vénétitay, a teacher and an official of the leading union in secondary schools.
The walkout, which most of the country’s teaching unions supported, posed a serious challenge for President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which has taken pride in keeping its schools open longer than many other European countries during the pandemic.
“I fundamentally believe the choice that we made to keep schools open is the right choice,” Mr. Macron said at a news conference on Tuesday.
Macron has made it clear that the school policy is part a social contract which will allow France and other countries to live with the virus. He hopes that this will allow France and other countries to keep pandemic restrictions at bay in return for a high level of vaccination.
However, the Omicron variant, which is rapidly spreading, has partially disrupted this contract.
France now has an average of nearly 300,000 coronavirus cases per day. This is almost six times the number reported a month ago, and much higher than at any other time during the pandemic. Olivier Véran, the country’s health minister, said on TwitterHe had tested positive for HIV on Thursday.
Partly, the rise in infections is due to school-aged children who are more likely to get the virus than French adults.
The government created complex testing rules to confuse millions of parents and teachers in order to prevent whole classes being sent home or schools from being shut down. The rules were then changed twice in a matter days. The testing protocols led parents and children to stand in the cold outside of pharmacies and medical labs, snaking lines.
Jean Castex, Prime Minister of France, stated Monday that protocols would not be changed in an effort to calm growing anger. Parents will no more have to pick up their children from school immediately after a classmate is positive for HIV. Additionally, potentially exposed children won’t need to be tested at the labs or pharmacies to be allowed to return to class. The tests can be done at your home.
Teachers claimed that simplified rules could increase the likelihood of school-related infections. They also complained for weeks over a lack of equipment like air-quality monitors and a shortage of highly protective masks.
The walkout “demonstrates the growing despair in schools,” the leading union of elementary school personnel said in a statement. “Not only does the current protocol fail to protect students, staff and their families, but it also completely disorganizes schools.”
The union has long asked for a return of a rule that was in place earlier this year and which required that classrooms close when there is a confirmed case of coronavirus.
“They’ve opened school doors wide to Omicron and royally couldn’t care less about teaching personnel,” a union of school principals wrote on Twitter, following Mr. Castex’s announcement.
Participants in Thursday’s march in Paris also expressed anger and exasperation at what they described as the government’s lack of preparation and anticipation, two years into the Covid-19 pandemic.
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“The epidemic must be curbed, but the policy that has been chosen is not consistent,” said Louise Diego Taboada, a high school English teacher in a town southeast of Paris.
“We find ourselves enforcing a protocol, two days later it has changed, a new protocol, yet another,” she said, as she marched near the Luxembourg Gardens, in central Paris. “We have no support, we have no means.”
Ms. Vénétitay, the representative for the secondary schools union, complained about the government’s handling of the pandemic, which she said was erratic. “We learn things at the last minute, without being really consulted, while on the ground we do everything to keep the school going.”
Mr. Macron on Tuesday acknowledged that there was “obviously a fatigue, a weariness, many constraints” in schools and called on people for “patience” and “kindness” in this crisis. He was less conciliatory last Wednesday, when he used his harshest language yet, to urge unvaccinated French citizens to get their shots.
The school staff’s anger was evident in the unusually large response to the call for a walkout on Thursday. Almost all of the country’s school unions joined the protest, as well as a major parents’ federation, which called on parents to march side by side with teachers.
Hervé Dardillat, the father of a 5-year-old boy, said he attended the march to support teachers whose work nowadays “must be difficult.” He added that the coronavirus had caused an unprecedented level of anxiety at school.
“That’s all the kids talk about now,” he said, referring to the virus. “I want them to dream and learn, just like before.”
Adèle CordonnierContributed reporting from Paris
Source: NY Times