Twenty pupils have lost a parent to Covid-19 in a single school on the outskirts of Paris, underscoring the health emergency in the French capital’s neglected suburbs and piling pressure on a government that has taken pride in keeping schools open at all cost.
Basking in the unseasonal heatwave that has suddenly swept France, Fatimata is untroubled by the television cameras and satellite dishes stationed outside her high school in Drancy, a northeastern suburb of Paris.
In fact it’s pretty “stylé” (cool), says the 15-year-old pupil, leaning against the iron and concrete perimeter fence of the Lycée Eugène Delacroix.
The day is drawing to a close and yet Fatimata and her friend Basmala have spent a mere two hours in class. Under different circumstances, the girls might have relished the free time. But right now it is cause for alarm.
“More and more teachers call in sick and are not being replaced,” says Fatimata. “We’re already weeks behind the programme and it’s only getting worse.”
The school fence may be holding the cameras at bay, but Delacroix is already besieged from within. In recent weeks, the coronavirus has spread like wildfire through the school’s narrow corridors and unvented classrooms, infecting staff, pupils and their parents.
The plight of the lycée has become a symbol of an increasingly heated debate on the merits of France’s “open-schools” policy, which the government has steadfastly defended even as infections surge in several regions including this one, driven by the so-called UK variant of the virus.
“In order to stick to a political decision, the government is effectively agreeing to let the virus empty this school bit by bit,” says a history teacher outside the lycée, fresh from an interview in Italian with the local correspondent for Italy’s La Stampa.
The teacher, who declines to be named, is among 30 staff members to have downed tools citing the threat to their health and that of pupils. Some twenty other colleagues have been infected since the start of March, meaning the list of missing teachers on the school’s notice board is getting longer by the day.
“The longer the list, the smaller the writing gets,” notes Eric Finot, a French literature teacher who has joined the protest movement. “Now you have to squint to make out the names.”
‘The government doesn’t care’
When Finot first joined the school twenty years ago, Delacroix had its own doctor and two nurses. Now, there is just one full-time nurse and another working part-time, looking after 2,400 pupils in a district pummelled by the third wave of the coronavirus.
The Lycée Delacroix has been forced to shut a quarter of its classes after each reported at least one Covid-19 case, in line with enhanced sanitary protocols applied to high-risk regions such as this one. In recent weeks, the virus has also infected the school’s two deputy directors and forced two-thirds of assistant teachers to self-isolate.
One figure has attracted particular scrutiny: a staggering 20 students have lost a parent to the virus since the start of the pandemic, a grim tally that explains why the cameras are here.
While there is no evidence to suggest those deaths were linked to infections at the school, “either way the figure is an ominous reminder of the vulnerability of the local population,” says Aline Cottereau, another of the protesting teachers.
Last week, Cottereau and her colleagues wrote a letter to President Emmanuel Macron to denounce the “alarming” medical and sanitary situation at the lycée. They asked for the school’s immediate closure and a temporary shift to full-time homeschooling – a request soon echoed by several politicians, medics and fellow teachers in the wider Seine-Saint-Denis area around Drancy.
The poorest département in mainland France, Seine-Saint-Denis, referred to colloquially as the quatre-ving-treize or neuf trois, after its administrative number, has been hit particularly hard by the pandemic’s successive waves. With almost 800 cases per 100,000 inhabitants, more than twice the national average, it is once again the area where Covid-19 is spreading fastest.
While many people in Paris and other affluent areas have switched to working from home, the capital’s poorer suburbs have supplied most of the frontline workers who keep the metropolis running. The combination of cramped quarters and a lack of doctors has also left the local population particularly exposed.
“The pandemic has only exacerbated existing inequalities,” says Marie-Hélène Plard, who heads a nursery school in Saint-Denis, the département’s most populous municipality, just north of Paris. “The dearth of medical facilities in the quatre-ving-treize affects everyone, schools included,” she explains.
Plard says the number of cases reported in schools often underestimates the real extent of infections, with parents coming “under immense pressure not to report positive cases, which result in them being trapped at home with their children and possibly jeopardising their jobs.”
Like other school directors, Plard spends much of her time juggling classes as she scrambles to replace staff who are infected or in isolation. She laments the government’s failure to put in place systematic testing, noting that social distancing measures are especially difficult to enforce in nursery and primary schools. Likewise, her repeated requests to replace fixed windows and install air purifiers have gone unanswered.
“We always agreed it was best to keep schools open rather than leave children at home, but we should have prepared for this,” she says. “Instead, schools are being kept open at all cost – even without teachers. The government doesn’t care what is going on inside.”
France has taken great pride in keeping schools open far longer than any other country in the European Union, a distinction Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer has hailed as a “French exception”. However, teachers’ unions and medical experts have expressed dismay at how little officials have done to mitigate the spread of the virus, protect staff and ease their workload.
Mathieu Logothetis, a history teacher in Seine-Saint-Denis and representative of the SNES-FSU union, says his organisation’s repeated pleas to recruit more teachers and educators, improve sanitation and step up testing have gone unheard. He hopes the government will at least change tack on its vaccination strategy, which has so far ruled out fast-tracking jabs for the country’s 900,000 teachers.
Under increasing pressure on the subject, Macron told reporters last week that he hoped targeted vaccination campaigns would be extended to teachers from April or May, though he remained non-committal.
“Teachers are on the front line of the pandemic but they are not being protected,” says Logothetis. “The government seems content to turn schools into nurseries as long as it helps keep the economy afloat.”
It’s a view shared by Coleen Brown, an English teacher at the Lycée Delacroix, for whom the health of staff and pupils is being put at risk “purely for economic reasons”.
Brown is dismayed to see that her colleagues back in the US are being vaccinated even before schools reopen, while France is yet to offer teachers a jab. She is also shocked by the insufficient measures taken to protect staff in schools.
English teacher Colleen Brown says French insistence on keeping schools open at all cost, and without adequate protection, is putting health of teachers and pupils at risk pic.twitter.com/LebsvVnfm5
— bendodman (@bendodman) March 31, 2021
“Social distancing is impossible, there are not enough cleaners, we don’t have gel everywhere and many windows can’t even be opened,” she says. “This would not be accepted in a private school and would certainly not be accepted at the education ministry.”
Don’t nip the swagger
The anger and frustration voiced at Delacroix is being echoed across Seine-Saint-Denis, with protesting teachers halting work at a growing number of schools also stricken by the virus. They include the Collège Claude Debussy in Aulnay-sous-Bois, the set of Olivier Babinet’s 2016 film “Swagger”, a vivid portrayal of the untapped potential harboured by some of the most run-down and ethnically-diverse suburbs of Paris, so close to the capital and yet so far removed from the Republican promise of equal opportunities.
Striking the right balance between cultivating that potential and protecting the health of teachers and pupils is a genuine dilemma for schools in Seine-Saint-Denis, says Justine Brax, an arts teacher at the Lycée Alfred Costes in Bobigny, for whom “closing schools in the quatre-vingt-treize would be a catastrophe.”
Brax says she is lucky to work in a spacious and functional environment, where sanitary measures are much easier to enforce than in most other schools in the area. Her experience of homeschooling during France’s first lockdown a year ago has cautioned her against repeating the experiment at her lycée, a vocational institute.
“Distance learning just doesn’t work for my students,” she explains. “Some don’t have computers or have siblings to look after, while their parents often can’t help. Many don’t have the autonomy to work alone from home. Instead, they thrive when working together in our workshops at the lycée.”
Back at Delacroix, the prospect of a return to full-time distance learning is causing similar qualms among pupils, who are already homeschooling part-time.
While she credits her teachers with working extra hard to balance online and classroom teaching, 17-year-old Sarah* fears her class will fall too far behind if the school is shut. In fact, she says, “we’re already so far behind I wouldn’t be surprised if they cancel the baccalaureate exams.”
At the same time, Sarah is worried about taking the virus home with her, while her mother recovers from surgery. That’s the real priority, says her friend Joël, for whom health considerations outweigh the rest. He adds: “If Macron doesn’t close our school after all this, then it really means he doesn’t give a shit.”