Covid France: Schools to do one million tests per month

The health minister did not rule out closing schools if necessary in future, but is now rolling out a series of new measures to combat the new UK virus variant

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Up to a million pupils and teachers per month could soon be tested for Covid-19 in France, the health minister has said, as he announces a new “protocol” to introduce mass testing in schools.

The new measures are part of the government’s new plans to fight the spread of the UK variant of the virus.

Prime Minister Jean Castex and Health Minister Olivier Véran have dubbed the plans “brakes” on the spread of the virus, with the measures also including the extension of the curfew to 18:00 nationwide.

Read more: Curfew at 18:00 for whole of France from Saturday

The health minister this week said: “We have mounted a protocol that is aiming to test up to a million pupils and teachers every month, which is huge. We will test all pupils from age 6, where it makes sense.”

The antigen tests will be done by nurses, and voluntary school medics. If schools do not have enough staff trained to do the tests, they will receive help from local pharmacists, firefighters, or health personnel.

The aim will be to do 300,000 tests per week, which works out at more than one million per month.

This will be coordinated by the health agency Agence Régionale de Santé (ARS) in each region.

The health minister said: “To date, we know that the virus appears to be more contagious among children. That is what we are seeing in England.”

School closures?

Dr Véran said that the government is “closely” following the variant spread, and did not rule out the possible closure of schools altogether “if the situation changes and we see a rise of the variant”.

But he said, “at this stage, the Société française de pédiatrie [French pediatric society] has been very clear on this subject, and called for the schools to stay open”.

On January 7, Mr Castex had already said: “The health situation must really be very serious for us to close schools.”

National Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer yesterday said that closing schools during the first lockdown had “increased inequality and the risk of [pupils] falling behind educationally”.

He said: “[Instead] we are going to make the health protocol a little stricter [and] maintain the greatest protection possible for staff and ensure that learning continues.”

Yet, Mr Blanquer said that “we will continue to close classes, and schools, on a case-by-case basis” if a significant number of Covid cases are detected among staff and pupils.

‘Hybrid’ mode in lycées and some collèges extended

Mr Blanquer confirmed that a “hybrid” method of teaching - with some students in person and others learning remotely at home - in lycées and some collèges would continue beyond January 20.

January 20 had previously been the date at which this method was expected to end, but Mr Blanquer said: “It is working. We consider it to be effective.” He reminded students who are attending school to continue to be “particularly alert”.

New rules for lunch and sports

The minister has also introduced more safeguards around canteens and sports classes - where the risk of the virus spread is higher.

He said: “[Lunch] is a weak link, because it is a time during which you take off your mask, and eating together can be a site of contamination.”

Now, class groups will be required to eat together, and pupils and students will not be permitted to mix between classes in the canteen. This could mean that lunchtime hours are extended, and that some pupils will be permitted to bring lunch in from home.

Mr Blanquer said he had also “unfortunately, suspended” indoor sports activities for several weeks, in consultation with the sports ministry.

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