Covid facemasks could stop being mandatory in schools “within the next few weeks,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has announced.
Mr Blanquer said during an interview on France Inter that this decision will depend on certain epidemiological criteria being fulfilled, which is likely to happen in “spring.” However, he did not add details of the specific conditions which would allow for mask rules to be lifted.
“I believe it will be possible within a few weeks,” Mr Blanquer said, adding that it was his “dearest wish.”
It is unlikely, however, that mask rules will be lifted before the end of the month, he added, because the government and the health service quality regulator Haute Autorité de Santé do not yet have enough “perspective” on the trajectory of case and hospitalisation numbers.
“We have the feeling that the peak of the fifth wave is behind us and that the current decline in the case numbers allows a certain optimism.”
Even if school mask-wearing requirements are not lifted in the coming weeks, they will “almost definitely” be lifted “by the end of the school year,” Mr Blanquer said.
It is “extremely desirable that mask requirements are removed for children as soon as possible,” he added.
On Friday (February 11), France’s education ministry had already announced a series of Covid rule relaxations set to take effect after the February break.
Tightened school protocols including a series of three obligatory tests for Covid contact cases were initially introduced in January, as case numbers surged following the emergence of the Omicron variant.
They were widely criticised by parent and teacher unions, leading to several weeks of strike action.
Mr Blanquer admitted that: “The new protocol was the straw that broke the camel’s back, after a series of other difficulties,” in an interview with Le Télégramme last week.
What will change after the February holidays?
Under the changes, school Covid protocols will pass from level 3 to level 2 when pupils return from their holidays.
This means that:
Primary school pupils and staff will no longer have to wear a mask in the school’s outdoor spaces.
The date of this change will depend on the zone of France. In Zone B it will be on February 21, in Zone A it will be on February 28 and in Zone C it will be on March 7.
Pupils will be allowed to play sports inside without a mask, but must continue to socially distance. If the lesson involves contact sports, masks must continue to be worn.
Limits on inter-year mixing – for example in school canteens – will be relaxed
From February 28, pupils identified as close contacts of a positive Covid case will only need to take a self-administered test on day two after the case is detected, as opposed to days zero, two and four at present
From February 21, pupils having to undergo Covid tests will no longer need to present a ‘statement of honour’ (attestation sur l’honneur) confirming that they have indeed carried out the test