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EDUCATION

Why are France’s teachers going on strike over Covid rules?

Schools across much of France will close on Thursday and others will be severely understaffed due to one of the biggest education strikes in recent years. We spoke to teachers to find out why they are so angry about the government's Covid rules.

School children wait for a saliva test at a school in southwest France.
School children wait for a saliva test at a school in southwest France. Teachers will go on strike across the country on Thursday in response to the government's handling of the Covid pandemic. (Photo by Philippe LOPEZ / AFP)

Olivier Flipo has been a head teacher for 20 years – and his job has never been harder. 

His days are punctuated by a near constant ringing of the phone and the ping of new emails. At the school gates each morning, he checks the attestations of a large portion of the 250 pupils who attend his elementary school in Val-d’Oise. Recently it has been common for more at less than half the pupils to come in. 

On top of his normal duties as a headmaster, his work now includes: creating individual health files for pupils; communicating information to the regional health authorities about which students are contact cases, when they may have been infected and who may have infected them; organising extensive cover for infected teachers as the fifth wave rides rampant through France; and staying on top of the constantly changing Covid protocoles issued by the government. He doesn’t have a secretary.

“Since the return to class after the holidays, it has been a horror,” he said. “It is unbearable” 

Flipo, who is a delegate for the Val-d’Oise wing of the UNSA teachers’ union, will be joining tens of thousands of school staff going on strike in France on Thursday – to protest the government’s handling of the pandemic.

Primary schools will be most affected, with three quarters of staff going on strike, leading to an estimated half of all primary schools closing for the day.

“It will be a massive movement – the biggest in years,” said Jean-Claude Richoilley, a middle school teacher in the Marne and member of the SNES-FSU teacher’s union. 

“The government has managed the Covid policy in schools very badly. The protocol has changed three times in a week,” he said. 

Government policy

This constant revision of Covid rules is a key point of contention for teachers.

“The big problem is that when the Education Minister changes the protocol, we are not warned in advance. We learn about it on the TV like everybody else,” said Typhaine Maillard who teaches at a middle school in Solre le Château in the North of France. 

“I find that it is a lack of respect. We are forced to improvise at the last minute. We can be warned on Sunday night for new rules coming into place on Monday. It is very stressful.” 

The Education Minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, was criticised for unveiling a new Covid protocol for schools in a Le Parisien article initially available only to paid subscribers, on the day before schools were set to reopen after the Christmas break

The rules changed on December 7th and again on December 10th. 

Currently, the rules state that children who are contact cases must take three self-tests, on the day they came into contact with an infected person and again on Day 2 and 4. These tests can be obtained for free at the pharmacy. Before the pupil can return to school, a parent is required to fill out an attestation saying that these tests have been completed. 

If another pupil tests positive within a seven days of the previous one, the testing cycle doesn’t need to begin again. 

When a pupil tests positive for Covid, their classmates don’t have to be picked up by parents to go for a test straight away but can instead stay at school until the end of the day. 

“These incessant changes to the rules are more and more incomprehensible. Parents in front of school say to me that they don’t understand,” said Flipo. 

“We have a minister who says he is very proud because we have an education system that is working. But I have had classes where there are just two students. Is that what you call classes working?” 

So what do the teachers want? 

While teachers unions are united in their support of strike action, their demands vary. 

They broadly agree that the government needs to put more resources into things like the high-spec FFP2 masks for teachers and surgical masks for pupils and CO2 captors in classrooms to monitor air purity levels.

Masks have been compulsory for pupils and teachers in French schools since 2020, with a brief pause in some areas with low infection rates in autumn 2021 before they were reinstated.

There is regular testing of pupils in school, using the spit tests for younger pupils.

Vaccination is not compulsory for either pupils or teachers – although more than 90 percent of teachers are vaccinated.

All teachers say that the Education Ministry needs to better communicate further changes. 

But not all of the unions are calling for a return of the rule whereby when a pupil tests positive, the class is automatically closed. 

We all have the same objective – that schools don’t close. It creates inequality,” said Flipo, whose union has not called for the return of class closures. 

“But a systematic closure of classrooms after one or two infections, with one simple attestation to sign, might be in the interest of families. We need to simplify the system,” he continued.  

Maillard’s school will remain open on Thursday – although more than half the teachers, including many who don’t belong to unions, are on strike. 

“I have had three pupils test positive in my class, but we carried on. It made me feel worried for my own safety and the safety of the other children. You could tell that they were worried too because they were all talking about it,” she said. 

Maillard is not striking as she was ill last week and says she needs to catch her pupils up otherwise they will fall behind. It was a difficult choice. 

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EDUCATION

REVEALED: France’s new holiday dates for the 2022/23 school year

School in France is far from out for summer but the dates have been released for the 2022/23 school year complete with holidays and "bridges". Take a look so you can plan your holidays.

REVEALED: France's new holiday dates for the 2022/23 school year

It’s the time of year children dislike most – as is traditional, rentrée in France is on September 1st this year, a Thursday, a day after teachers return to the classroom to prepare for the new term.

The 2022-23 school year then ends – 36 school weeks later – after classes on Friday, July 7th, 2023, later than in recent years and just a week before the fête nationale on July 14th.

 “My class will be almost empty the last week, families will have gone on vacation, especially if the tourist prices are considered out of vacation, therefore less expensive,” a  teacher in Paris told Le Parisien.

Another was concerned about the weather at that time of year. “The longer we get into the year, the hotter it gets. They already forecast 35C on May 18th, so on July 8th, I can’t imagine the heat in class,” she said.

School holidays in France have long been divided into three zones. Summer, autumn and Christmas holidays are taken at the same time across the whole of the country, but the winter and spring breaks are staggered according to which zone a school is in.

The educational zones in France are here 

Image: Service-Public.fr

The Ministry of Education has published a calendar planner for the 2022/23 school holidays on its website, showing the holiday periods for all three zones in France.

Image: ministère de l’éducation nationale et de la jeunesse et des sports

The calendar is available to download as a pdf, here

Notably, pupils in Zone A schools – those in Besançon, Dijon, Grenoble, Lyon, Clermont-Ferrand, Limoges, Poitiers and Bordeaux – face a longer-than-usual summer term, a two-and-a-half month stretch from April 24th to July 8th. This is a longer term than is usually recommended by education experts – longer even than the 10-and-a-half weeks at the same time last year for two zones, which was described as “a marathon” by both families and teachers.

There will be some breaks in that long run of school weeks, however. May Day and VE Day are both on Mondays next year, Ascension is on Thursday, May 18th, with schools traditionally ‘bridging’ the Friday, and Pentecôte holiday is on Monday, May 28th.

On the flipside, pupils in the same zone also get the shortest term on record in the next school year. They return after the Christmas holiday on January 3rd, and break-up for the winter holidays on February 4th.

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