Schoolchildren face fraught return to class as Omicron runs amok in France

Millions of French children headed back to school on Monday without the usual knock-on effect of school holidays: lower levels of paediatric Covid-19 infections. This time Omicron is behind an unchecked viral spread among all ages in France, with an average 167,000 cases confirmed daily. A new Covid-19 school protocol released Sunday closes some glaring gaps in the fight to stem infections among children. But it also opens new opportunities, observers fear, for Omicron to run amok.

Teachers had demanded high-quality face masks and quicker “circuit-breaker” class closures to stem the threat of Covid-19 clusters in schools, but Sunday’s back-to-school protocol stops short on both counts. Indeed, even as more than 98 percent of France’s nearly 6 million 5- to 11-year-olds remain unvaccinated, the new rules treat them not unlike triple-vaccinated adults and virtually do away with class closures.

Before the two-week holiday break – when France paradoxically relaxed the threshold for closing a kindergarten or primary school class from one confirmed infection to three even as it tightened restrictions elsewhere in society – rates of Covid-19 in children and paediatric hospitalisations had hit record highs. Now, after families gathered for the holidays and the Omicron variant staked its claim nationwide, those numbers are even worse despite far lower levels of Covid-19 screening for children over the break.

The latest numbers available show more than one percent of all school-age children testing positive for Covid-19 last week alone in France, with incidence rates above 1,000 per 100,000 over the seven-day period ending December 30. The latest available incidence rates were 1,339 per 100,000 for primary children ages 6 to 10, with more than one in five kids screened in that age group testing positive.

Where Omicron moved in first and fastest – the greater Paris area – child infections are even more rampant, with an incidence rate of 1,869. In the suburban department of Essonne south of Paris, the rate is 2,434 – nearly 2.5 percent of all 6- to 10-year-olds there were infected last week alone.

Clarion calls

Critics have long slammed Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer for hastily dismissing pandemic-mitigating proposals for schools, for fixating on keeping them open instead of making them safe, and accusing him of downplaying coronavirus transmission and virulence in children  – with the result being schools that are reliably open but woefully under-equipped to fight Covid-19.

Over the holiday break, medical professionals sounded the alarm over what they see as a chronic lack of Covid-19 preparedness in schools, a situation poised to become exponentially more problematic under Omicron.

In an open letter to Health Minister Olivier Véran on Christmas Day, 50 “very worried” healthcare professionals asked Véran to take over responsibility for the Covid crisis in schools from the education ministry. They appealed for delaying in-person learning in the “high risk” period after the New Year to better equip schools and schoolchildren for the looming Omicron battle, from ventilation to vaccination.

“We are expecting an unprecedented wave in the weeks to come of admissions of children suffering from multisystem inflammatory syndrome (MIS-C), as well as the after-effects related, in some cases, to long-term forms of the illness (paediatric long Covid),” they wrote.

“It is important to do everything to minimise the risks of transmission in all age groups, and particularly in schools,” the healthcare professionals added. “The absence of prevention in school settings ultimately impacts healthcare treatment for the whole population since medical time is not infinitely extendible.”

Meanwhile, France’s Scientific Council, a panel of scientists that advises the government on Covid-19 matters, warned that “at least” one-third of schoolteachers could be off work by the end of January with the Omicron wave now poised to inundate the country.

Over the holiday break, the state of the pandemic in schools officially became an election issue as 2022 presidential candidates took up the torch during radio and television appearances. Socialist Party candidate Anne Hidalgo slammed the government for relaxing school protocols with Omicron nascent in early December, conservative candidate Valérie Pécresse called for a delayed restart after the New Year, and Greens candidate Yannick Jadot blasted the lack of carbon-dioxide detectors nationwide that could aid in ventilating classrooms against an airborne virus.

Teachers’ unions, for their part, threatened to strike, not least over the government’s refusal to provide teachers with surgical or FFP2/N95 face masks.

New rules

Unswayed, the government held fast in its pledge to open schools on schedule on January 3. But it kept parents, teachers and students in suspense over changes to the health protocols until Sunday, finally releasing them just hours before the back-to-school rentrée.

In short, primary schools remain at Level 3 of a four-level protocol (with middle- and high schools at Level 2) despite the raging viral spread. But new measures at the margins do close some virus-friendly loopholes in the previous rules. Kids from an absent teacher’s class can now no longer be reallocated to another teacher’s classes as a stopgap. It is now “strongly recommended” that schools cut out field trips to indoor venues like museums. And “convivial moments” – read: maskless festivities with food and drink, like the January tradition of sharing a galette des rois (king cake) – are now prohibited.

More controversially, the new stipulations for primary schoolchildren on isolation largely hew to the relaxed rules decreed over the weekend for French adults who are fully vaccinated with a booster dose.

Une école ouverte avec des conditions sanitaires adaptées!Dès ce lundi 3 janvier, de nouvelles règles d’isolement et de dépistage s’appliqueront. Ces évolutions visent à assurer la protection des élèves et des personnels.➜ Toutes les informations :

— Jean-Michel Blanquer (@jmblanquer) January 2, 2022

While unvaccinated adults must isolate for at least seven days if they have been in contact with an infected person, symptom-free vaccinated adults are now free not to isolate as long as they get an antigen or PCR test immediately and self-test two and then four days later with negative results. Under the new school protocol, the same goes for children under 12, even though fewer than two percent of 5- to 11-year-old French children have been vaccinated.

“What changes is that, from now on, when a family does the first test, they will receive two free self-tests from the pharmacy for pupils to test themselves again at home two and four days later,” Blanquer told Le Parisien in an exclusive interview unveiling the new rules on Sunday.

By taking into account the virus’s incubation period, the new rule addresses what school and health professionals saw as a hazardous gap in the protocol already relaxed in December. Children then had been allowed to return to school with a negative test result immediately after a classmate’s infection was confirmed, with no further screening required.

But observers fear the new rules still provide plenty of room for error: children potentially incubating the virus after being infected by a classmate are allowed to attend class on the strength of negative self-tests, the reliability of which have been called into question, in particular for detecting Omicron. Moreover, parents need only provide a sworn statement that their child tested negative, not the result itself.

In addition, while the protocol relaxed in December still shut down a class for a week if three children from separate families were confirmed positive within seven days, the new rules cancel that automatic circuit-breaker. Now, the education ministry says, it would take an undefined “very large number of cases” to spur authorities to consider closing down a class, to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

Mask appeal nixed

In Le Parisien, Blanquer dismissed teachers’ pleas for better masks in the face of the Omicron variant, saying teachers are among the least infected professionals and suggesting high-protection masks are impractical for the classroom. “It is very difficult to teach lessons with FFP2 (N95) masks, which are for that matter reserved for healthcare professionals,” he said.

Labour representatives, however, say teachers have resorted to buying masks themselves for their own safety, leaving aside the government-issue fabric versions they deem useless.

Pour rappeler ce qu’est le protocole sanitaire dans l’éduc, après l’aération, les masques. Ceux reçus ds mon lycée : en tissu, trop grands, sans barrette pour pincer le nez, mais avec une étiquette pour avoir du style (ou pas). Evidemment, on s’achète nos propres masques chir 1/2

— Sophie Vénétitay (@SVenetitay) December 30, 2021

“Wearing an FFP2 mask, for teachers who want to, very significantly reduces their risk of infection,” Christian Lehmann, one of the doctors who signed the Christmas Day open letter, told France Info radio on Monday. “Teachers who have underlying conditions, who are asthmatic, who are obese – they contact me. Obviously their goal is to teach children, but they feel they’re being placed in danger and I can’t tell them otherwise because that’s exactly what I think,” said Lehmann, who also belongs to the Du Côté de la Science collective of scientists that acts as a watchdog on Covid-19 policy.

Not that the other back-to-school measures announced are sitting well with teachers’ unions, either. “The government has chosen to privilege the economy over health and has completely owned Jean-Michel Blanquer’s doctrine of ‘open schools’ under any conditions, despite schools’ role in driving the epidemic and amid an extremely contagious variant,” the Snuipp-FSU union of kindergarten and primary school personnel said in a statement on Sunday.

“By allowing infections to spread, the government is placing its bets on healthcare, imagining that the lesser danger of Omicron will enable the hospitals to ‘hang on’ or that Covid won’t have long-term consequences, particularly for children,” the union added.

Vaccination lag

The gloomy prognoses might have been otherwise had French children been vaccinated en masse. Some countries did enthusiastically embrace the opportunity to vaccinate primary-school children, with Spain’s Pedro Sanchez, for one, tweeting an enthusiastic public service announcement on December 14 to get the ball rolling in his country.

Llega el momento de vacunar a los niños y niñas de 5 a 11 años. Continuamos avanzando para proteger a la población y seguir recuperando los espacios que la pandemia nos había robado; para garantizar que los menores y las personas de su entorno estén más seguros.#YoMeVacunoSeguro

— Pedro Sánchez (@sanchezcastejon) December 14, 2021

But in traditionally vaccine-sceptic France, where 68 percent of parents surveyed in December said they were opposed to vaccinating their 5- to 11-year-olds, the government was exceedingly cautious in launching its vaccination campaign for this age group. After waiting for three separate French health and ethics bodies to advise, France finally green-lit approval on December 22. The decision came a week after a number of its European neighbours; several weeks after Israel, the US and Canada approved vaccines for children under 12; and nearly a month after the European Medicines Agency gave its OK for Pfizer’s paediatric vaccine.

Over the holidays, with a limited number of centres offering paediatric doses despite government assurances that 2 million had been received and that more were forthcoming, parents on social media shared their fruitless attempts to score appointments for their kids. Only a few thousand a day were inoculated over the break.

Enfin, près de 80% des adolescents sont complètement vaccinés (ils ne sont pas éligibles au rappel).

Concernant les 5-11 ans, près de 40 000 ont reçu leur première dose depuis le 15 décembre.

Un démarrage assez lent, comparé à celui chez les ados 👉


— Nicolas Berrod (@nicolasberrod) January 2, 2022

As school began under the controversial new protocols, one such frustrated father seemed darkly resigned. “I thought it was a good idea to vaccinate my 6-year-old daughter (without managing to find an appointment),” tweeted Florian Bailly, a doctor at Paris’s Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital, on Sunday night. “After tonight’s announcements, there’s no longer any use: no more being ejected from school for contact cases … 100 percent of French people, including her, will have Covid-19 before the vaccine fully takes effect (three weeks + 10 days).”

With that gallows humour and pandemic fatigue, it’s yet another back-to-school that is far from back to normal.

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