Trade unions ready for a historic strike over France’s school rules for Covid-19

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With Covid-19 cases soaring among children in France, Prime Minister Jean Castex went on the air Monday night to relax again in school records. Teachers across the country were already outraged by the government’s pandemic response and have planned a massive strike on Thursday. The new instructions – the third set since the children returned to school on January 3 after the holidays – have not calmed the teachers’ anger. On the contrary.

Flooded by the Omicron wave even when Delta hangs on, France’s pandemic bill is staggering. Nationwide, all ages combined, the country has an average of more than 280,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases daily, with more than 2.5 percent of the country testing positive last week alone.

In schools, the frequency of infection is often worse. In the Paris area, where Omicron struck first and fastest, about 5 percent of primary and middle school children were confirmed to be infected last week; among 15-17-year-olds, the figure was over 6 percent. At the same time, millions of primary school students remain unvaccinated in the middle of a painfully slow start to the campaign for 5- to 11-year-olds.

Healthcare and education staff have called for better protection against Covid-19 in schools and require high-quality face masks and carbon dioxide detectors in every school to facilitate ventilation against a predominantly airborne virus. They have also asked to be allowed to return to the minutes on the spot in the autumn, which set in motion circuit-breaking class closures from the first confirmed case.

But their demands have mostly fallen on deaf ears. Since cases began to increase rapidly in December, the French government has puzzled experts by easing the Covid-19 school protocol time and time again.

Judging by the unusually broad response to calls for a strike on January 13, school staff have also reached a breaking point: unions, both radical and moderate, representing a variety of school workers, including teachers, assistants, principals and school inspectors. , in primary and secondary schools, in the public and private sector, have merged to nerve tools on Thursday.

A major parent federation, the FCPE, even urged parents to withdraw their children from the class to mark the day of protest. All that said, starting Tuesday night, Snuipp-FSU, the leading union for elementary school staff, predicts that 75 percent of elementary school teachers will go on strike on Thursday and that half of those schools will be closed.

“We have not seen a gathering of unions so closely and united, at the primary and secondary level at once, but also among the leadership, in very many years. It is quite exceptional. From that perspective, that day and that call (to strike “) are clearly historical. Indisputable,” education historian Claude Lelièvre told Libération on Monday. “The guild is generally not unanimous,” the researcher explained. “However, the (French) educational community can be unanimous if it feels abandoned, attacked or humiliated. That is the case here.”

‘Simplification’

As pharmacies and laboratories sink under the weight of demand for about 1.5 million antigen and PCR tests a day, parents and children have literally been left out in the cold in long queues.

Since an earlier change in the school protocol in December, classmates in contact cases are allowed to return to school practically immediately with a negative screening result. But in the midst of the struggle to get children tested in good time, Castex announced three “simplification measures” in response on Monday.

First, parents no longer need to pick up their children immediately after a classmate has tested positive; children can stay in school until the end of the day.

In the wake of that announcement, some were annoyed by the new risk they see the relaxed rule impose. “Thank you for letting children who will be contact cases stay in school until the end of the day and eat with the kindergarten teachers ‘assistants (maskless during the meal with the children). We are so calm,” a teachers’ assistant union tweeted Monday night, with sharp sarcasm.

Second, Castex announced, children no longer need a PCR or antigen test to return to school after the first exposure in class, a self-test is sufficient. Also risky, experts say, apart from the convenience, and point out that the Minister of Health Olivier Véran himself just a few weeks ago emphasized the lower accuracy in home tests. Observers also flagged the risk of losing control of the pandemic in schools – “breaking the thermometer” in the suggestive French language – by replacing PCR and antigen results recorded in a national database of untraceable do-it-yourself tests.

People wait their turn for Covid-19 tests at a pharmacy in Nantes, France on January 8, 2022. © Stephane Mahe, Reuters

Third, Castex said, parents no longer need to certify in writing – as they learned last week – that their children have been screened three times, on days 0, 2 and 4; now a single reassuring comment from mom or dad is enough. (Judging by an outraged reaction on social media on Monday night, the government may have more confidence in parental goodwill than their co-parents or children’s teachers do.)

Unimpressed, a union of school principals tweeted for their part: “They have opened the school doors wide open for Omicron and could not royally care a bit about teaching staff”.

At the same time, with hours left before a legal shutdown at midnight on Monday to join the strike line, the union that first launched the strike call responded that Castex statements would only stimulate more support for the protest movement.

“The current protocol not only protects students, staff or their families, but also makes the school completely disorganized. Despite repeated government claims to the contrary, it is not schools that are open but a form of childcare,” says the union Snuipp-FSU, which requires the primary classes to close at the first confirmed infection to protect against virus clusters.

Digging in

Critics have long criticized Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer for opposing proposals to reduce the spread of the virus in schools with the deliberate dogma of keeping them open. Outraged school and medical staff say they share a preference for keeping schools open, but want them safer for the children and adults who spend their days there.

Amid a health ministry warning during the Christmas break that “at least” a third of teachers may be off due to Omicron in late January – and with schools, health care workers and opposition politicians urging the government to steel schools for the wave to come – Minister Blanquer seemed to be digging i. The new protocol he announced hours before the children returned to school on January 3 removed the last automatic switch to close a class after three confirmed infections; only an undefined “very large number” of cases in a class would prompt authorities to consider a closure in the future, the ministry said.

“The virus is probably allowed to circulate in schools,” epidemiologist Mahmoud Zureik told France Info radio early Tuesday in response to recent protocol changes. “Children obviously develop fewer serious cases,” says Zureik. But he suggested that Omicron have changed the game plan. “Yesterday, there were 73 children under the age of 10 in intensive care and more than 300 hospitalized. It is increasing,” he said, emphasizing that Covid-19 is still “an avoidable disease”.

“I do not think the Minister of Education has ever tried to protect schools (against Covid-19), whether for ventilation, for CO2 detectors, for the problem of canteens, to raise awareness of vaccination, whether for at-risk children. or for children of all ages, or for the test policy, says Zureik, who belongs to Du Côté de la Science, a research community that acts as a watchdog for the Covid-19 policy.

France’s education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, pictured here at the Élysée Palace in December, has been the focus of teachers’ anger throughout the Covid-19 crisis. © Ludovic Marin, AFP / Archive

Undeterred by the prospect of a historic union consensus on his ministry’s pandemic response, Blanquer said on Tuesday it was “a shame to have a day that will further disrupt the system”, calling the pandemic severe in all countries and dismissing Thursday’s strike as unnecessarily divisive.

“As I express the hope that this will be our last wave, it would be a shame to be fragmented at home, which is very difficult, very complicated for all players,” Blanquer told BFMTV. “It is not a strike that will solve problems. You do not go on strike against a virus.”