France faces one of its biggest education strikes in decades on Thursday, when about 75% of teachers are expected to walk out, forcing the closure of half the country’s primary schools in protest at the government’s handling of Covid-19 measures in the education sector.
French ministers have made keeping schools open a priority, despite a recent surge in Covid-19 cases, fuelled by the Omicron variant.
Teachers say Covid rules in school are confusing and constantly changing.
The nationwide strike could be the biggest in decades as 11 unions representing teachers, parents and other school staff vent their anger at the government’s Covid policies.
“The exhaustion and exasperation of the entire educational community have reached an unprecedented level,” the 11 unions said in a statement.
The unions said the government and the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, were to blame for what they called a “chaotic situation” in schools.
The main trigger for the strike was France’s health protocol, which has been changed a number of times since December.
Parents and children have faced long and often bewildering queues outside pharmacies to be tested in order to keep up with the requirements for pupils in a class where there has been a positive case. Testing rules for children have changed several times since the start of January. France’s prime minister, Jean Castex, finally announced this week that a series of home tests could now be used to determine whether a student can return to school.
Children over the age of six must wear masks in French schools.
Teaching unions said the government was failing children by a disorganised approach that provided inadequate protection against infection for staff and students alike, and failed to ensure replacement cover for teachers falling ill while leaving schools acting as a form of test-and-trace managers.
“Students cannot learn properly because attendance varies wildly, and a hybrid of in-house and distance learning is impossible to put in place,” the SUNipp-FSU said, adding that absent teachers were not being replaced.
Unions are also demanding the government provides the more protective FFP2 face masks for staff, and CO2 monitors to check whether classrooms are sufficiently ventilated.
“Not only does the current protocol not protect students, staff or their families, it has completely disorganised schools,” the union said, claiming that classes have effectively been turned into “daycare centres”.
In a rare move, France’s largest parents’ group, the FCPE, supported the strike, encouraging parents to keep their children home on Thursday. The group said France needed more saliva testing within schools, rather than lateral flow tests at home; a proper strategy to ensure distance learning; and to replace absent teachers. “Just keeping the school’s doors open isn’t enough,” Rodrigo Arenas, the co-president of the FCPE, told Le Monde.
The strike “demonstrates the growing despair” among teachers, the Snuipp-FSU union said.
But the government has defended its policies, which it says are necessary to keep schools open.
“I know it’s tough, but a strike does not solve problems. One does not strike against a virus,” the education minister, Mr Blanquer, told BFM TV.