France seeks to become one of few countries to reopen schools before September
French President Emmanuel Macron's pledge on Sunday to fully reopen all schools on 22 June would make France one of few countries to completely resume classes before September, but it involves easing rules on distancing that have greatly limited the scale of reopenings so far.
Macron's remarks about school reopenings, one of the few concrete measures announced in his fourth address to the nation of the coronavirus epidemic on Sunday, clearly laid out his ambitions.
“In mainland France and in the overseas territories, creches, primary and junior high schools will prepare to welcome all pupils as of 22 June, which will be obligatory and according to the normal rules of attendance,” Macron said in the address, which was repeated on Twitter.
Opening all schools except high schools, representing students aged 15 through 17, would allow more parents to return to work and give pupils two weeks to see their teachers and classmates before summer break begins on 4 July.
“Two weeks is not insignificant, both in both pedagogical and psychological terms,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told French radio Europe1 on Monday.
“For students, there will not be a gap stretching from March to September,” he said. “We all know that would have social and educational consequences. Children need to go to school.”
Physical distancing rules
French education has largely rested on distance learning since schools closed on 16 March.
Since they began to reopen on 11 May, schools have followed a strict health protocol limiting class sizes to 15 pupils and ensuring a distance of 4 square metres around each pupil.
“The most important measure to ease is physical distancing,” Blanquer affirmed on Monday, saying the new rule will be one metre between pupils and no limit to class sizes. “This change means we will be able to welcome all pupils.”
A new version of health rules were to be issued to schools on Tuesday.
Parents confused, teachers exhausted
Macron's announcement would make France one of few countries in Europe, if not the world, aiming to fully reopen schools before September.
Many countries including Britain, Italy and Spain have started reopening schools on a partial and regional basis, but most have announced they will resume full-time, full attendance studies in September at the earliest.
Unesco, which monitors the status of school closures around the world, showed France as one of few countries in the world to have opened all schools to some degree as of Monday.
But it remains to be seen whether the new rules will be enough to meet the president's objective.
To date, only about a quarter of pupils have returned to the classroom, almost entirely on a part-time basis, according to the education ministry: 1.8 million out of out of a total 6.7 million pupils in French maternal and primary schools (ages 3 to 10) and 600,000 out of 3.3 million pupils in junior high schools (ages 11 to 14).
Many parents are under pressure to return to work and do not understand why their children remain at home five weeks after the end of nationwide confinement and despite previous announcements of partial reopenings.
Headteachers meanwhile have described being caught between government orders to welcome the most pupils possible while also respecting the stringent health measures, and unions questioned whether one metre would be enough to resume normal functioning.
“A magic promise but difficult to apply in reality,” said Francette Popineau, secretary general of teachers' union SNUIpp-FSU. “Many questions remain.”