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Teachers and parents in France have voiced concerns about president Emmanuel Macron’s controversial decision to reopen schools on Monday.
Under strict protocols imposed by the government, parents will need to take the temperature of their children before arriving at school, lesson times will be staggered to avoid student contact, and class sizes will be limited to allow for a metre (3.2ft) spacing between desks.
Despite being one of the countries hardest hit by coronavirus, France is one of a handful of western European nations to restart lessons, with Italy and Spain both delaying the return of students until at least September, while the UK is yet to give a date on the resumption of classes.
When to resume lessons has become an urgent debate across Europe, as countries attempt to reopen their economies without sparking a devastating second wave of coronavirus infections.
Macron warned that the ending of the national lockdown on Monday after eight weeks would be only a first step for France to pull out of the coronavirus crisis.
“May 11 will not be the passage to normal life. There will be a recovery that will need to be organised,” Macron said last week. “There will be several phases and May 11 will be one of them.”
But the French government has faced mounting criticism for its back-to-school plan, with more than 300 mayors in the capital region, including Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo, urging Macron in an open letter to delay the reopening of primary schools.
They denounced an “untenable and unrealistic timetable” to meet the lengthy list of sanitary and safety conditions required by the government. The majority of French children attend public schools.
The reopening calendar “is, in most of our municipalities, untenable and unrealistic,” the mayors said, asking for Macron “to put an end to the incomprehensible administrative logistics, in terms of equipment for educational staff.”
The full list of protocols that teachers, students and parents must follow to facilitate the reopening is striking. All contact and ball games will be banned, the sharing of toys and pencils must be avoided, while play equipment that cannot be disinfected will be off limits.
Along with desk spacing capping classes to a maximum of 15 pupils, a distance of at least one metre between staff and students must be observed at all times, while access to toilets will be limited to respect social distancing and urinals must be at least one metre apart.
Recess and meal times will be staggered to avoid lines, and hand washing with soap and water must be carried out “before entering class, before and after meals, before and after going to the bathroom, after blowing your nose, coughing, sneezing, before going home and upon arrival at home.”
For teachers, authorities recommend wearing a mask, with the education ministry providing staff who have direct contact with students two masks per day. The wearing of masks for teachers and secondary students is compulsory in all situations where “compliance with the rules of distancing may not be respected.” Masks for primary students will be optional.
An exclusive YouGov survey for HuffPost France taken before the protocols were announced found 76% of French people would have preferred schools to stay closed until September, and that many parents won’t send their children back to school.
However, the draconian measures introduced to ensure safety don’t appear to have eased concerns. Parents Frederic Pruvost and Cecile Bardin have questioned the practicalities of implementing stringent sanitary measures.
“I think putting the kids back in school is a good idea but the question is when? Isn’t it a little too early? This must happen in good sanitary conditions,” Bardin said. “We know that we must keep certain distances away from each other so I am not reassured for the moment because it will be very difficult to keep safe distances at the schools especially for little ones who will want to find themselves in the playground and what will it be like at lunch times in the canteen?”
Coronavirus has killed more than 26,000 people in France, the world’s fifth highest toll behind the United States, UK, Italy and Spain.
With reporting from HuffPost France, The Associated Press and Reuters