Teachers across France staged a one-day walkout Thursday to protest changing Covid-19 rules that they say have disrupted schools and are now too lax to protect against the omicron variant that is tearing across the nation.
Tens of thousands of teachers and school personnel, sometimes joined by students’ parents, participated in marches across the country, in what appeared to be one of France’s biggest school protests in decades.
The Education Ministry said that nearly 40% of elementary school teachers and nearly 25% of secondary school teachers were on strike, although school unions put those figures much higher, at 75% and 60%, respectively.
“It’s all this exasperation and anger that has built up to today,” said Sophie Vénétitay, a teacher and an official of the leading union in secondary schools.
The walkout posed a serious challenge for President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which has taken pride in keeping schools open longer than many other European countries during the pandemic.
“I fundamentally believe the choice that we made to keep schools open is the right choice,” Macron said Tuesday.
France is now averaging nearly 300,000 newly reported coronavirus cases a day, almost six times as many as a month ago. The surge in infections is partly driven by school-age children, who are now more likely than French adults to be found to have the virus.
To spare whole classes from being sent home or entire schools from having to shut down, the government set up complex testing rules that confused millions of parents and teachers. It then changed the rules twice in a matter of days.
Hoping to stave off a wave of growing anger, Prime Minister Jean Castex said Monday that the protocols would be relaxed. Parents will no longer have to pick up their children immediately after a classmate tests positive, and potentially exposed children no longer have to be tested at pharmacies and labs to return to class. Instead, the tests can be done at home.
But teachers said that the simplified rules increased risks of infections at school. They have also complained for weeks about a lack of equipment, like air quality monitors, and shortages of highly protective masks.
The walkout “demonstrates the growing despair in schools,” the leading union of elementary school personnel said in a statement.