French parents weigh the risk of sending their children back to school

Not exactly the most welcoming sight.
Not exactly the most welcoming sight.
Image: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard
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When France imposed a nationwide lockdown on March 17 to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, nobody knew how long it would last. Now, almost two months later, the country will gradually begin lifting restrictions in a process it calls déconfinement. And it will start with schools.

It’s no surprise the country is prioritizing schools in its plans to reopen. Universal public education is a pillar of the French republican model. Freeing up young parents to go back to work also helps the economy. But in a major departure for a country where education before the age of 16 is mandatory, parents won’t be penalized (link in French) if they choose not to send their children back to school.

So it’s left to parents to weigh the risks—and not all of them are on board. Their concerns show how challenging it will be to convince people to return to normal life even as the threat of the novel coronavirus appears to subside.

How French schools will reopen

Last month, French president Emmanuel Macron announced that the déconfinement would start with public schools. He’s not the first to make that decision: Denmark and Germany have already reopened some or all schools. But the pandemic has hit France harder, with 136,578 confirmed cases and 26,188 fatalities—the fourth-highest death count in Europe.

In recent weeks, however, the rates of new cases and hospitalizations have stabilized, the welcome result of confining 66 million people to their homes. The official word is that the déconfinement is on track: While rules will vary in every department, education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said (French) that “one million schoolchildren will be welcomed by about 130,000 teachers” next week, with anywhere from 80% to 85% of schools open by Tuesday.

The first children to go back to school will be those in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, and primary schools. The Ministry of Health has released some pretty stringent—and some say, unachievable—sanitation and hygiene guidelines (French), which include things like socially-distant recess and a recommendation to disinfect balloons, toys, and pencils after every use. Every school and town can impose or adapt its own rules, by delaying the déconfinement if they feel the school is not ready, for example, or by limiting class sizes. Some regions, like Ile-de-France, which includes the city of Paris, are marked as “red,” meaning the rules are stricter, and only younger children will return to school.

Will parents take the risk?

Surveys of parents conducted by several public and private schools in the Paris area show just how much of a challenge reopening schools will be.

At a private Montessori preschool in Paris, the principal recently asked parents whether they wanted to send their children back to school in May, with an average of only three children per class. Only 1 out of 8 parents chose that option, while three-fifths of parents said they preferred to keep their children at home until September. At a private middle school in the Val-de-Marne region, results were similar: Only 7% of parents said they wanted to send their children back in May, while 88% said they “preferred to wait and observe the evolution of the public health situation.”

Celine Pierre, who lives just outside of Paris, however, says it’s high time her daughters went back to school. “They’ve been home for two months already. They also want to go back, and I think that not going back there until September means not closing the chapter on this school year.”

Hanan Dupont, who also lives near Paris, agrees. She has four children. Her toddler will go back to kindergarten on May 18, and her three older children will go back to their private school on May 25. She says this has given her peace of mind: “By May 25, I will probably be more reassured.” She supports reopening schools, and worries about her children’s education. “Normally in two months, they learn a lot and here, I see that they have learned very little. It has impacted me a lot and touched me a lot.”

A recent development may change their minds. In the past two weeks, doctors identified an unusual respiratory syndrome in children thought to have been exposed to Covid-19. Known as “pediatric multi-system inflammatory syndrome,” it can cause a wide range of mild-to-severe inflammatory and respiratory symptoms, and three children recently died of it in New York.

Given that the rationale for reopening schools has long been that children are far less likely to develop serious Covid-19 symptoms than adults, this news has given many parents pause. “I know it scares a lot of parents, and I think that without it, reopening schools would have been a lot easier,” said Lesly Fellous, a pharmacist who lives in Boulogne-Billancourt, a suburb of Paris. His 5-year-old son will go back to school on May 25.

Fellous is matter-of-fact about the déconfinement and the public health crisis. He has seen the ups and downs of this outbreak firsthand while working in a hospital. “Things were really bad a month ago. It was really scary and people were panicked. We didn’t have the means to protect ourselves. When we would come home, we would think about it, and when we got up in the morning, we thought about it. Now, it’s started to attenuate a little.”

“We are less anxious now because we tell ourselves that the worst is behind us.”