A nationwide strike took place in schools across France on Thursday as teachers and other school staff demonstrated against the government’s administration of COVID-19 protocols in schools.
Teachers, other school staff and parents in the country have been complaining for months about health protocols in schools that are confusing and constantly changing. The government has changed the rules for schools twice in the past week.
They argued that they are facing the crisis with inapplicable measures, a growing work overload, teachers not being replaced when they are sick, no additional resources or staff to alleviate the problems and a lack of transparency from the Minister of Education.
Teacher unions had called for a strike to denounce the “indescribable mess” in schools as COVID-19 cases have increased and pharmacies have reported shortages of self-test kits since the beginning of the year.
The elementary school teachers’ union, SNUipp-FSU, announced a 75% participation rate among their ranks, and the high school union, SNES-FSU, said 62% had been mobilized. However, the Ministry of National Education claimed that 38.5% of primary teachers and 23.7% of secondary teachers participated.
“The teachers express their anger at this minister who does not hear them, who does not listen to what is happening in the field, who does not listen to the unrest in schools and to all possible dysfunctions, and especially a minister who addresses the press first before addressing the students,” a SNUipp-FSU representative told ABC News. “And so the teachers are very angry.”
Leading parents’ association, the FCPE, also joined the teachers’ support movement, calling for a “white day” in schools earlier this week and urging parents to keep their children at home on Thursday.
FCPE co-chair Nageate Belahcen said that while the COVID-19 protocols look “nice” on paper, there is “no pedagogical continuity”.
“Nothing has been put in place because the resources are not there and there are no substitute teachers,” Belahcen told ABC News, adding that she is also concerned about the exams taking place this year. “All of this means that the parents are still very, very concerned about their children’s future, their children’s well-being, and most importantly, we can no longer handle this situation.”
Education professionals have been calling for Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer for weeks for more staff and reinforced measures – including FFP2 masks for teachers, CO2 sensors and air purifiers for classrooms – to combat the growing cases of COVID-19.
Blanquer has come under fire several times since the start of the pandemic over concerns over how he has handled the COVID-19 crisis.
“When will you present your resignation, Mr. Minister?” Sylvie Tolmont, a deputy from the Sarthe National Assembly, asked during a government interrogation on Tuesday. This is not the first time his resignation has been called for since he took office in 2017.
In an effort to appease the protesters, Prime Minister Jean Castex met with unions on Thursday evening, along with health and education ministers.
After a three-hour discussion, Blanquer announced that he had agreed to some of the unions’ requests, including the distribution of 5 million FFP2 masks to schools, the hiring of 3,300 contractual substitute teachers and additional non-teaching and administrative staff.
There has been a similar dispute over health and safety in schools in the United States. After five days of canceled classes, Chicago Teachers Union voted, 56% in favor, to approve a COVID-19 agreement with Chicago Public Schools, including extensive testing, masks and a plan to close schools during outbreaks.
Thursday’s strike was a “historic mobilization” for France, according to SNUipp-FSU, given the number of strikers, the unity between the teachers’ unions and the fact that the FCPE also participated.