France sets stricter Covid protocol for schools

New rules include classes closing if just one case of the UK variant is confirmed, more robust category 1 masks, and enforced physical distancing, as France fights to keep schools open

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Schools in France are now operating under a stricter Covid-19 protocol, including measures such as regulation masks, and new rules on classes closing if a case of the UK variant is confirmed.

The National Education Ministry confirmed the new protocol on Monday this week, to start immediately.

The rules are intended to make schools safer in the face of the new Covid variants, without the government having to close them completely.

National Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has said: “I am deeply convinced [of the need] to keep schools open.”

The rules apply to “establishments where all pupils are present”, the protocol reads, although lycées are still permitted to offer a “hybrid” model where some classes are in-person and some are done from home.

These “strict security conditions” apply for all school establishments, from the youngest to the oldest.

We summarise.

Class closing if UK variant confirmed

If one case of a new Covid variant - first identified in the UK - is confirmed in a class, the entire class will close. This applies if the case is a pupil or a member of staff.

Previously, France required three confirmed cases of Covid before a class would close.

In case a new variant case is suspected, while it is being confirmed, classes will close “on a case-by-case basis”, in consultation with the area’s regional health agency, its prefecture, and the Ministry.

Schools, collèges and lycées with a suspected case will also prompt a mass-testing campaign in the entire establishment.

Surgical masks

Masks worn by pupils and staff, where they are obligatory, must now be of a surgical standard (category 1).

Fabric or handmade masks alone, and those offering “category 2” protection, will no longer be permitted. Families have until February 8 to source adequate masks.

The youngest children, in maternelle classes, are not required to wear a mask.

‘Contact’ definition widened in maternelle schools

If one case is detected in a maternelle school, all of the school’s pupils will now be considered as “case contacts”.

This does not apply to staff, as they are required to wear a mask at all times. However, if three or more cases are confirmed, the staff will be included as contacts.

At elementary level - where masks are required for pupils and staff - three confirmed cases among pupils will mean that all their classmates are now considered to be contacts, as are staff members.

Two metres of distance between pupils

From February 8, a two-metre distance between pupils will be obligatory in classrooms, canteens and bedroom dormitories for boarding schools.

In canteens, pupils from the same class may eat together, “but maintain a distance of two metres away from those of other classes”. Tables will also be cleaned and disinfected after each service, and ideally after each meal, the protocol states.

Up until now, a two-metre distance between classes was simply “encouraged”, rather than being a mandatory rule.

Outside, the rule still applies, except for pupils of the same class or group.

In maternelle schools, a distance of one metre is required between pupils in different groups, but not within pupils of the same class.

Increased aeration of rooms

Classrooms must now be aerated - with windows opened to allow ventilation - every hour, for several minutes. Previously, this was required every two hours.

France is one of only a handful of countries in Europe - and the world - to keep its schools open.

Unesco data shows that schools are only “fully open” in Europe in Norway, Switzerland, Croatia, Estonia, Iceland, Belarus and France.

Schools in Spain, the UK and Italy are completely closed, while those in Belgium, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, and Denmark are only partially open.

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