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French teachers walk out of their classrooms in protest as omicron drives record coronavirus case numbers

French teachers attend a Jan. 13 demonstration in Nice during a nationwide day of strikes against pandemic work conditions in schools. (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)
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PARIS — French teachers staged a large-scale protest of their pandemic work conditions Thursday, forcing school and class closures across the country and prompting government concessions, as the omicron variant continued to drive a record spike in coronavirus cases.

Almost one-third of French teachers stayed away from their classrooms on Thursday, according to the French Education Ministry. Teachers unions put the figures even higher, at over 60 percent, which would make Thursday’s school strike one of the biggest in decades.

As striking teachers assembled at protests across the country, they were joined by a number of parents and left-wing presidential candidates. Their joint criticism is that the French government’s promise to keep schools open at all costs has resulted in an unmanageable “mess” that has failed to keep teachers and students safe.

“It’s all but catastrophic,” said David Barasz, a teacher who attended a protest in central Paris on Thursday. “We lack recruitment, resources and recognition,” he said.

School systems around the world debate new closures as omicron spreads

After a meeting between Prime Minister Jean Castex, several other ministers and protest representatives on Thursday evening, there were some signs that the demands had been heard. In a late-night announcement, Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said the government would provide teachers with 5 million N95-equivalent masks and launch an expanded recruitment effort for thousands of additional personnel.

The announcements were a notable change in tone after the French government had for days framed the protests as unhelpful. “One doesn’t go on strike against a virus,” Blanquer, who has been blamed for the confusion and frustration in schools, had said earlier this week.

France has seen some of the world’s highest numbers of new daily infections per capita in recent days, with over 360,000 new cases reported on Wednesday. While the government has expanded its remote-work mandate for certain companies, it has vowed to keep schools open for in-person teaching — a stance that has largely remained unchanged for over a year, despite a brief interruption last spring.

The French government’s promise to allow students to keep going to class stood out among much of the rest of the world last winter. It raised some questions about safety, but it was largely applauded abroad. The United Nations and other organizations repeatedly called on countries to reopen schools shuttered by the pandemic, citing the detrimental psychological and social impacts of long-term closures.

But as the omicron variant drives record case numbers, and as vaccination rates among children lag behind those among adults, many school systems are once again pondering closures. Many French teachers and students do not advocate widespread closures, but they demand more government support and clearer protocols, amid widespread staff absences, a lack of protective equipment, frequently changing testing requirements and surging caseloads in classrooms.

During previous waves of the virus, France temporarily shut classes as soon as a positive case was detected. But those rules were relaxed in recent weeks, after vaccination coverage had expanded and class closures were poised to surge again.

Even though infections among students have far surpassed previous records over the past four weeks, fewer than 30 schools remained closed as of a week ago — compared with almost 230 closed schools at one point in spring 2021. Roughly 2 percent of all French school classes — or about 10,000 out of over 500,000 — were closed as of earlier this week.

Teachers unions around the world clash with governments over coronavirus and school reopening plans

The French government views its more relaxed approach, combined with frequent testing, as consistent with its overall strategy of dealing with the omicron variant. In the French capital of Paris, many restaurants, workspaces and metro trains are still crowded, even though access to many venues has required a health pass for months.

“We want to live as normally as possible, despite the virus,” government spokesman Gabriel Attal said Wednesday of France’s current strategy, citing figures that school classes in the United States have been closed four times more often through the pandemic than in France.

“When one closes classes, one sacrifices the health, education and future of our children,” Attal said.

But many teachers and some parents argue that the government has left them alone with the difficult questions of how to adapt those goals to the realities of the pandemic. France only opened its vaccination campaign to children ages 5 to 11 in late December, leaving many primary school students unprotected.

Apart from the risks teachers are exposing themselves to in school, they also complain about mounting administrative burdens that have left them exasperated. Frequent rule changes have compounded confusion.

When students returned from their Christmas break last week, they were told that vaccinated older students who came into contact with an infectious person could avoid a switch to distance learning if they took several additional tests. But school principals soon complained that they have no way of tracking those tests. Pharmacies have in some places run out of the required self-tests. And several efforts by the government to adapt the guidance and respond to the concerns only provoked more confusion.

“Like teachers, parents can no longer endure changing protocols,” parents’ organization FCPE said in a statement.

But at Thursday’s protests, opinions diverged on how to reconcile the promise to keep schools open with the omicron variant surge.

“To be really honest, I don’t have a solution,” said Chloe, a parent who attended the teacher strike in Paris. “But it’s clear that the current approach isn’t working.”

Read more:

Students in France return to schools, even as covid-19 cases soar

‘I’m barely clinging onto work’: Exhausted parents face another wave of school shutdowns

School systems around the world debate new closures as omicron spreads