Concern over schools’ readiness to reopen

29 April 2020
By Jane Hanks

School classes will reopen under strict conditions and staggered over a period of weeks when France begins deconfinement on May 11.

Parents can decide whether their children return to school – it will not be obligatory. Classes will be limited to 15 pupils.

First back will be primary and maternelle classes starting progressively from May 11, throughout the country. Pupils will not have to wear masks.
From May 18, collège pupils, starting with those in sixième (age 11) and cinquième (age 12) will start to go back. In his address to parliament outlining deconfinement plans on April 28, Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said collèges would only open in departments with a “very feeble” virus circulation.

All collège students will have to wear masks. Teachers will be provided with masks to use when they cannot be more than a metre from pupils.
The prime minister said a decision for lycées would be taken at the end of May.

It has not been clarified how larger classes will be restricted to just 15 but alternate weeks for pupils or half-weeks with home schooling filling the rest of the time have been suggested.

Mr Philippe said reopening was a priority as too many pupils had been cut off from education during confinement with teachers reporting no news from between 5 and 8% of students, rising to 40% in some areas.

Several teaching unions and the parents’ association FCPE had already laid down conditions for schools to reopen in a joint letter to Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer including:

  • Regular testing of staff and pupils with and without symptoms to keep track of the situation in a school;
  • Disinfection of buildings;
  • Enough surgical FFP2 masks for staff and enough hand sanitiser for staff and pupils;
  • Staff and pupils who have underlying health issues should not have to return. Also those with vulnerable family members;
  • Classes organised in small groups.

No details have been given yet relating to students who board.

Rodrigo Arenas, co-president of the FCPE, said progressive opening should mean when each school is in a position to do so safely. It would be difficult to make sure all requirements are in place by May 11.

“There are many elements to consider. Several schools didn’t have soap in their toilets before the crisis,” he said.

“A canteen has to start ordering food three weeks before it can serve meals. All the staff, plus parents and local authorities, must discuss together how to organise re-opening.”

He said that going back to school must not mean back to classic lessons straight away: “The priority will be to deal with the psychological state of the pupils and to care for them.

“Some may have lost loved ones or seen them suffer. First, the wellbeing of the child, and then instruction.

He added: “It has shown us the importance of school, not just for learning, but as a place to learn about life. It has underlined inequalities in the system, which I hope education authorities will learn from.

“Parents have learnt the important and caring role teachers play in the life of their children and schools have seen how important the role of the parent is in the classroom.”

Combining education and work at home

Many parents have now experienced home education for the first time.

The ages of the children, work commitments, home resources, garden or no garden – and how many have to get round the table – all have to be taken into account.

For Scheenagh and James Harrington, who live in Castres, Tarn, it has proved a rewarding and useful experience, though at time also exhausting and frustrating.

They have three children. Eleanor, 14, is studying for her brevet; Robert, 10, is in CM1; and Philip, six, is in CP.

“We have the added element that Philip has just been diagnosed as autistic,” said Mrs Harrington. “Eleanor and Robert go to the same fee-paying school where standards are high and they cannot afford to fall behind.”

The family quickly got into a routine, which mirrored a school day, starting at 8.00 and finishing between 16.00 and 17.00, with breaks in the morning and afternoon, and a “healthy” hour for lunch.

“We have found the experience valuable because, though we have been very involved in our children’s education, we’ve never before been so in touch with what they do at school.

“We have learnt more about their strengths and weaknesses and ways they work best.

“Eleanor can work on her own but we have discovered that sometimes she will miss an assignment, so we have to check up on that.

“Robert can struggle to concentrate, so we have been able to find ways to help with that.

“And Philip needs constant feeding of his intellect.”

She said teachers have been professional and organised, supplying work and staying in contact with their pupils. After a few early teething problems, the system has worked well, she said, though a week’s set work has only kept Philip occupied for about one day so they have had to find more work for him.

Both parents are freelance journalists and are used to working from home, but they say it is impossible to work full-time and look after their children. So they have cut their workloads and take it in turns to help their children.

Mrs Harrington said that, short term, it has been time well spent but it will be good for school to resume.

“Robert and Eleanor miss their friends, and Robert is frustrated because he cannot do sport, which helps him concentrate. Philip needs socialisation because he finds it hard with his condition.”

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