Tens of thousands of French teachers angry with the government’s COVID-19 rules have walked off the job and have taken to the streets to demand better protection for pupils and staff against infection.
Teachers, parents and school directors have struggled to deal with the pandemic and the many twists and turns on COVID rules at school. New testing requirements, announced on the eve of the return from the Christmas holidays and changed twice since, coalesced the anger.
“We had reached such a level of exasperation, tiredness, and anger that we didn’t have any other option but to organise a strike to send a strong message to the government,” said Elisabeth Allain-Moreno, national secretary of the SE-UNSA teachers union.
The exasperation was felt in protest rallies across France, at which many called for the resignation of Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer.
“The [health] protocol mutates faster than the virus,” one poster read at a rally in the southern city of Nice.
A government source said Blanquer was unlikely to lose his job three months before the presidential election. Prime Minister Jean Castex will, however, meet teachers’ representatives later on Thursday, his office said.
Several left-wing candidates in April’s presidential election, including Socialist Anne Hidalgo, whose platform includes doubling teachers’ salaries, and hard-left Jean-Luc Melenchon, took part in the Paris protest.
Al Jazeera’s Natacha Butler, reporting from Paris, said protesters believe that the rules that have been put in place are too complicated and unmanageable.
“They say the restrictions are putting them at risk of the virus in the classroom even more than in previous months … at a time when the virus is circulating so widely in France,” Butler said.
“We’re having nearly record daily new COVID-19 infection rates in France. They want simpler, clearer rules. They want more time to be able to put any new measures in place; they say at the moment, that’s just not happening. They also want things like more masks, more protective measures.”
Some schools were closed on Thursday because of the strike, others were open only for children of health workers while a number operated normally.
Unions said large numbers of teachers – including about 75 percent in primary schools and 62 percent in high schools – joined the one-day strike. The Education Ministry’s figures were much lower, 38.5 percent in primary schools, and just less than 24 percent in high schools.
A joint statement by 11 unions blamed the government for what it called a “chaotic situation” due to “incessant changes of footing, unworkable protocols and the lack of appropriate tools to guarantee [schools] can function properly”.
The government stood by its policy to keep classes open and requiring all pupils in contact with an infected person to get tested three times. Some degree of complication is the price to pay to keep schools open, it said.
“I know it’s tough, but a strike does not solve problems. One does not strike against a virus,” Blanquer told BFM TV.
Infections have surged in schools as France has set records with close to 370,000 new daily cases, sending families scrambling to get their children tested.
“My children and I, we’re fed up with getting tested every other day,” said Corinne Courvoisier, the mother of seven-year-old twins, who had joined the protest rally in Nice.
“We started testing Nelson and Elsa on Friday because there was a suspicion of a positive COVID-19 test in Nelson’s class, so Friday, then Sunday, then Tuesday, and then yesterday we were sent a letter from the director that there was another suspected case in Elsa’s class … We’re never seeing the end of it.”