France kept classes open “at any cost” and there were consequences

Cartaz na escola Eugene Delacroix que diz "Campus = Vírus"
A poster at Eugene Delacroix School says “Campus = Viruses”
Photo: Saskia Vandorn / CNN

Grace was full of hope when she entered the final stage of high school. The 16-year-old was two years after graduation and wanted to make her parents proud – especially her own.

Grace said, “I told him that I loved him and that I would always do my best.”

This will be the last promise she will make to her father, as his tube has been inserted into the intensive care unit for patients with Covid-19. He died the day after their conversation, April 9 of last year, at the height of the first wave in France.

The realm of grace has fallen. She said CNN Who was afraid to go back to school in Seine-Saint-Denis, a district in northeastern Paris severely affected by the epidemic in September 2020.

When she returned, school was still what she remembered. But for Grace (who did not want her last name to be published to protect her family) nothing was quite the same before.

The student was worried that her classmates would treat her differently, and was surprised when a classmate told her that she had also lost her father to Covid-19.

In all, at least 20 students from his school, Eugene Delacroix, near Drancy, lost soon to the virus in 2020, according to the city.

There is no indication that the deaths were caused by infection at school. But CNN I spoke to students of Eugene Delacroix, who claim to have a common weight: the fear of taking Covid-19 home and infecting a loved one.

Eugene Delacroix School in Drancy, a suburb of Paris
Eugene Delacroix School in Drancy, a suburb of Paris
Photo: Saskia Vandorn / CNN

Open Schools Policy

Aside from a short suspension from classrooms at the start of the pandemic, France made its open schools policy a source of pride in the name of reopening the economy and providing social service, with some parents relying on school lunches in order to feed your children.

The government’s stated belief is that the benefits of opening schools far outweigh the cost.

“Let’s not forget what makes us proud. No other country in the European Union has left its schools open like France,” Clement Bonn, the French minister responsible for European affairs, tweeted last March, the day before Italy closed its doors. Again due to an increase in infection.

France has closed its schools for a total of 10 weeks since the start of the pandemic – one of the lowest rates in Europe, according to UNESCO data, compared to 35 weeks in Italy, 28 in Germany and 27 weeks in the UK.

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During the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, the government closed schools in March, before gradually reopening them in May and June.

“We need children to return to school because there is a risk of being left behind, gaps in learning will appear and educational disparities will worsen,” French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters during a visit to a school in the northwestern district of Paris. , In May last year.

In September, back to school became mandatory for more than 12 million students in France. People over the age of 11 should wear the mask, classrooms should be ventilated and social distancing should be practiced in hallways and canteens.

Colin Brown
Colin Brown teaches English at Eugene Delacroix. She says French classrooms have been open “at any cost” for most of the pandemic.
Photo: Saskia Vandorn / CNN

Not all schools were able to comply with security protocols, especially those in poor neighborhoods.

Colin Brown, who teaches Eugene Delacroix’s English language classes for classes of 30 children, said the restrictions were impossible to enforce at the start of the school year. The windows did not open, some children took off their masks, there was a shortage of cleaning staff and there were almost no tests for the virus.

“France may have been exceptional because it kept schools open at all costs,” Brown said. “But it wasn’t like that about funding schools so they could do it safely.”

Despite Brown’s pleas and fear of entering the building every day, she said not much was done about protective measures: The complaints she and other teachers made to school officials in January had no effect.

a CNN He called the Créteil School Board, which oversees Eugene Delacroix’s School, but received no answer.

The Minister of Education, Jean-Michel Blancer, stated to CNN Who realized that the policies put in place were not perfect.

Close requests

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, most children were taking home lessons after the government imposed a national and schools shutdown, while type B.1.1.7, an infectious variant first identified in that country, was spreading.

When the alternative arrived in France and its schools, the “Stylos Rouge” (red pencils), made up of 72,000 education professionals, sued Blancer. In March, they accused him of failing to protect teachers who had close contact with children “spreading the virus”.

This spread has not been felt anywhere more than Seine-Saint-Denis, the hardest-hit region in France, according to the country’s health ministry.

At the height of the third wave, when cases began to spike in Eugene Delacroix, a total of 22 classrooms were closed after students and teachers tested positive for Covid-19, according to the Teachers’ Union. The policy of the previous government was that three students need to pass a positive test for a quarantine class. This was reduced to 1 student in March 2021.

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The teachers’ union has sent an open letter to Macron and Blancer criticizing the current situation and calling for the “immediate and temporary closure of the college”. Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, looking to present a presidential run for 2022, reiterated the call and called for schools in the capital to be closed to control the spread of the virus, but no action was taken.

Closed semester in the suburb of La Courneuve
A closed classroom in the suburb of La Courneuve, Paris
Photo: Martin Bureau / AFP / Getty Images

Blankier defended his open schools policy for Saleh CNN, Also saying he made a choice for the benefit of the children and their future.

“It was necessary for the children to go to school, not only because of teaching and learning, but also because of interaction with others, and for psychological and health reasons,” said Blankker. “In times of crisis we show our true values, and what really matters to us is the school. So, this crisis can be a huge challenge for all of us, as there are many obstacles ahead, but it is also an opportunity to be more aware of what really matters.”

This strategy was reflected in Macron’s decision to postpone a tougher lockdown in early 2021. He said the country needed to consider the impact on mental health and the economy when implementing a balanced response to the third wave.

However, between January and March, fear of eating Covid-19 became part of the school life of 2,400 Eugene Delacroix students, some students said. After losing her father, Grace was afraid to take the virus home.

Grace said, “I wasn’t worried about catching the virus, but what if I took it and took it home and passed it on to a cousin or nephew? I would be horrific, even though I knew it wasn’t my fault.” .

Maëlle Benzimera, 17, who attended Eugene Delacroix High School and lives with her parents, brother and sister, said she was also concerned about contaminating her loved ones.

“I know that if I catch the virus, I will get a little sick, but I will not get very sick to go to the hospital. Now, if my parents or grandparents got the virus, I know they could be hospitalized or die.” “I’ve been very scared since September.”

Vaccines for teachers

Only in April, after facing an upsurge in infections, the widespread spread of the variant discovered in the UK, and alerts to hospitals that they might have to screen patients, Macron announced a partial lockdown across France.

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The president also ordered the closure of schools for a period of three to four weeks, essentially extending the Easter holidays. In the following weeks, infection rates among children and youth under the age of 20 fell across the country, according to Health Ministry data.

Authorities said they are doing everything they can so schools can safely reopen their doors, including saliva tests and vaccinations for teachers over the age of 55 – and they account for only 16% of all teachers, according to Ministry of Health data on kindergartens and primary schools1. It reopened in April. 26, primary 2 and secondary schools on May 3.

According to the Ministry of Health, more than 15 million people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, which corresponds to about 29% of the adult population in France. Macron promised that a “specific strategy” would be implemented for teachers to be vaccinated in April, but those under the age of 55 would not have priority until June.

Some epidemiologists and scientists have questioned the government’s policy of keeping schools open even as transmission rates increase.

They highlighted the fact that children are clearly transmitters, and that closing rooms when there was a positive case was not enough. To prevent its spread, the school as a whole had to be closed.

Epidemiologist Katherine Hill argues that without widespread testing, there is no way to know the level of Covid-19 transmission in schools.

“It’s like trying to empty the bathtub with a sieve,” Hill said. “It doesn’t work. This is not a solution at all.” “Even if the classrooms that have a positive child close, other children can become positive at any time and you have to do it again. Even if you do it with 250,000 children per week, with a population of 6.6 million in primary schools that does not reach Anywhere “.

With around 5,000 people currently being treated in Covid-19 intensive care units across the country, teachers believe that going back to school means only one thing: infection rates will increase, and they are not yet protected.

Blanker admits that the situation in schools “was not ideal,” but said that providing children with education is, after all, a long-term goal that the government was not prepared to give up.

Antonella Franchini contributed to this report.

(Translated text. Read the original text English here.)

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