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French teachers’ unions call for strike as government eases COVID protocols

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
Schoolchildren, wearing protective face masks, work in a classroom at the College Jean Renoir Middle School in Boulogne-Billancourt, near Paris, France, on January 7, 2022. (Photo by Reuters)

French teachers have gone on strike in protest at back-to-back changes of COVID-19 policy in schools.

The strike, staged on Thursday and led by the Snuipp-FSU union, the largest among primary school teachers, comes after the latest of several changes on testing and isolation requirements for potential COVID cases announced by Prime Minister Jean Castex late Monday.

“French schoolchildren will be allowed to do self-tests instead of a PCR test if one of their classmates is infected with the coronavirus,” as soaring new infections have made the health protocol in schools too heavy, Castex told France 2 television.

France has put emphasis on keeping schools open in recent months, no longer rushing to shut down classes with positive coronavirus cases, and it did not extend holidays to let Omicron and Delta waves pass, unlike some of its EU neighbors.

The union has called the demonstration a “historic mobilization,” adding that it is not a strike against the virus but over disorganization caused by the test and contact-tracing rules, heightened contagion risk, and a shortage of face masks for staff.

Most of the country’s other teaching unions have signed up on the strike plan and about 75% of teachers are expected to walk out. Parents union has also decided to march side by side with teachers at a rally.

“The responsibility of the minister and the government in this chaotic situation is total because of incessant changes of unworkable protocols and the lack of appropriate tools to guarantee (schools) can function properly,” eleven unions said in a joint statement.

Under the first change, from Tuesday, parents will no longer be obliged to pick up their children immediately for COVID testing if they are a contact case.

Home-testing will be deemed sufficient in such cases rather than testing at an officially approved site, such as a pharmacy, with parents signing a certificate to confirm the result. The test kits, available from pharmacies, will be free upon presentation of a letter from the school.

Managing COVID-19 infections in schools has been a challenge throughout the pandemic, with the World Health Organization’s European regional director stating this week that schools must be the last to close.

“Keeping schools open has important benefits for children’s mental, social and educational well-being. Schools should be the last places to close and the first to reopen,” Hans Kluge said.

The latest numbers available show more than one percent of all school-age children tested positive for COVID-19 last week alone in France, with incidence rates of above 1,000 per 100,000 over the seven-day period ending December 30. The latest available incidence rates were 1,339 per 100,000 for primary children ages 6 to 10, with more than one in five kids screened in that age group testing positive.

Where Omicron moved in first and fastest — the greater Paris area — child infections are even more rampant, with an incidence rate of 1,869. In the suburban department of Essonne south of Paris, the rate is 2,434; nearly 2.5 percent of all 6-to-10-year-olds there were infected last week alone.

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