Black Thursday in France: teachers strike en masse against corona policy

A school class in Boulogne-Billancourt near Paris.Image Yiming Woo / Reuters

It is proudly called an example of ‘the French exception’, at least by the government itself: France is one of the countries where schools have remained open the most during the pandemic. For education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer, schools are ‘the most precious institution at the heart of society’, so closure is one of the very last options. However, it is estimated that more than half of the schools will be closed today. The education unions expect that 75 percent of primary school teachers will heed their call to strike against the chaotic corona policy for schools.

Why exactly are French teachers going on strike today?

Because they are sick and tired of it, as the main education union SNUipp-FSU sums it up. The choice to keep schools open at all costs puts the health of teachers, children and their families at risk, according to the sector. The ever-last-minute changing rules are unworkable, there is a shortage of protective equipment, and to make matters worse, the Ministry of Education is spreading ‘permanent lies’. For example, Secretary Blanquer said that children are especially at risk of infection outside school hours, a claim that epidemiologists have labeled as idiotic. Teachers accuse the government of keeping schools open mainly for economic reasons, so that parents can continue to go to work. The school is being reduced to childcare, the education union denounces. Incidentally, the complaints are not new; a year ago, the SNUipp-FSU union sent out much the same message.

How are French schools dealing with corona now?

If one child in the class becomes infected, the other children will have to take a test on that day, two days later, and four days later. Anyone with a negative result may continue to attend school. There is an exception for children aged 12 and older who have not been fully vaccinated: they must immediately be in isolation for a week if someone in the class is infected. In recent weeks, that policy has led to a chaotic scene, with children queuing for hours in the winter cold to get a PCR or antigen test. Prime Minister Jean Castex therefore announced on Monday evening that from now on a self-test will also suffice. Schools are not happy about that. The relaxation mainly means an extra risk for them.

What do the unions want to achieve with the strike?

Teachers want to be able to close classes immediately in the event of a first corona case. Mainly for health reasons, but also because hybrid education is very difficult. In addition, they want students with infected family members to go into isolation from now on, and they are asking for a preventive weekly saliva test to be introduced. Surgical face masks should be made available to staff, or FFP2 masks for those who want them, as well as self-tests. In addition, the unions are asking for CO2 meters in the classroom to ensure that there is enough air exchange. Now 80 percent of the classrooms would not have such a meter. Finally, the unions are urging the ministry to recruit extra teachers who can stand in reserve in the event of a dropout. At the end of last year, the scientific council that advises the government on corona policy already warned that by the end of this month, a third of the teachers may have dropped out as a result of corona, directly or indirectly.

How has the protest been responded to so far?

“We are not striking against a virus,” said Education Minister Blanquer, who has called for unity around the schools. President Emmanuel Macron understands the fatigue among teachers, but believes that everyone “should arm themselves with a little patience and goodwill,” he said at a press conference on Tuesday, calling for pragmatism. But there is also acclaim; The FCPE, an organization that represents parents, has expressed its support and called on parents to mobilize on Thursday in protest against the corona policy in schools. The organisation, which is active throughout France, has 280 thousand members.