School management in France during Covid19 pandemic

From a doubtful management during the first wave….

During first wave Covid19 pandemic, French government closed schools when announcing, lately, the general lockdown. Distance learning replaced traditional education, when possible.

At the same time, government and media conveyed misleading information, especially on the capacity of the health system to face the pandemic (“if the other countries were failing, the French system was surely able to better react[1]”) and on the protection measures (“masks are useless[2] and hand washing is surely sufficient to prevent contamination”).

During the same period, the first outbreak in France involved a child, infected with Covid-19 in mid February. The contact tracing, imperfect because of the lack of knowledge, showed that he did not infect classmates. This result and the associated publication[3] have been used for a long time to support the hypothesis of “children are not spreading”. This message, relayed by the media, was supported by the French Society of Paediatrics[4] that still in October wrote in the press “ attending nursery, kindergarten or primary school without a mask does not represent an additional danger, neither for the children, nor for their teachers, nor for the dynamics of the epidemic” [5]. Nevertheless, it can be noted that mask was introduced in the elementary school at the beginning of November, thanks also to the number of doctors and scientists asking in the media for its adoption for children over 6 years old. But this is still object of debate, because of the anti-mask protestations and also of the articles written by some psychologists on the potential negative impacts on children. Some parent groups also decided to proceed with legal pursuit against the government. The first one is rejected; the others are still in progress.

However, when France exits the first lockdown, on May 11, virus was still circulating with approximately 700 new daily cases and 150 deaths. At the same time, schools re-opened, on a voluntary basis, with a safety protocol including physical distancing and hand washing. Two weeks before the summer vacations, on June 4th, school attendance became again compulsory. Therefore, in order to allow all the children returning to school, physical distancing became recommended “when possible” but not mandatory, following the recommendation of the French Society of Paediatrics[6] In practice, even if some families continued keeping children at home, the number of students per classroom rises up to 25-30 and physical distancing in classrooms and canteens was rarely applied. Students, of any age, did not use masks. Distance learning was totally suppressed.

During this first period of school in presence, while virus was still circulating, even if less intensively, contamination at school was not detected: only ~0.03% of the 0-19 years old class age is tested with respect to the ~0.08% of the 20-90 years class. It should be said that testing was recommended only for symptomatic population. It is well known today that this class age is generally nearly asymptomatic.

Thus, school management in the first wave was difficult and not adequate to protect children and society from the pandemic. But this can be partially understood with the new situation and the lack of preparation.

What is much more inacceptable is how the school management evolved in the last months, with the new academic school. During summer, it was necessary to wait until end of August to have some information on school reopening, traditionally planned for the 1st of September, while viral circulation intensified. Education Minister claimed that “everything was ready” and safety protocols studied for adaptation to the virus circulation levels. But teacher syndicates did not consider these affirmations to match with the reality and asked for a delay in the school reopening.

To an unprepared reopening in September straight on to the second wave

In spite of the renew of viral diffusion in August, the safety protocol for school reopening is not amended before starting the new academic year, on 1st September as planned.

The main motivation for school reopening it the major concern on the lasting harm to the academic and emotional development of children. This is of course a clear problem, but it does not help to understand why keeping school in presence was not associated with efforts for strengthening the health protection of children and professors in the schools.

On the contrary, besides the introduction of face mask mandatory for over 11, physical distancing was recommended only “when possible”, hand washing was still the major measure to prevent infection. No masks were recommended in elementary schools, no surgical masks were provided to college and high school students/teachers, textile mask are supplied to teachers, no specific protocols are adopted in canteens.. Thus, the requirements for school opening in September, with 5000 new Covid-19 daily cases, were less stringent than on May, when exiting the lockdown, with ca. 700 daily cases. This situation clearly results from to the lack of investment in the school: in the absence of additional recruiting or space extension strategy, it would have been impossible to have all the students returning to school. Furthermore, quite no communication, even today, focuses onto virus air spreading by aerosol nor any measure is adopted to prevent it, likely because of the required investments in ventilation and air purification. Children spreading is still denied, in spite of ever-increasing number of scientific papers. French references, the first case in the Alps and a second additional study[8] never reviewed by pairs and with data corresponding to a school closure period, and French Society Paediatric declarations on the media, are sufficient for convincing the public opinion that children are not concerned by Covid19 and school management is not impacting in the pandemic.

Thus, no sample testing campaign is planned to monitor/control viral diffusion in schools.

On the contrary, because of the increasing number of schools closing due to the detection of Covid19 case, since September 17th , new guidelines for contact tracing in school have been adopted, based on the advice of the French High Council for Public Health : adults wearing general purpose masks are never considered as “contact cases” (person at a risk after a contact with a Covid19 case who should be tested).

Students are considered “contact cases” only when 3 cases occurs in a week in the same classroom, whatever they wear mask or not, according to the age. Even in this case, in elementary school, students should be quarantined but without testing. The consequence was immediately visible, the number of children tested felt down sharply.

Even during the dramatic second wave in October, this rule won’t change, neither when the President announce the second lockdown and the Education Ministry publishes an updated version of the safety protocol (8 pages) for schools that should be kept open. The only change is the adoption of the face mask in the elementary school and an (insufficient) aeration recommendation for classrooms, corresponding to 15 min every 2 hours.

Thus, during the second wave and the second lockdown, schools are open and are exempt from wide-reaching nationwide restrictions that are to take in the rest of society. This is in contrast with the National Scientific Advisory Board on Covid-19 advice (October 26th )] to alert the French Government and Public Authorities about the critical situation due to the widespread and uncontrolled diffusion of Covd-19. In particular, the Advisory Board wrote “in regard to the pandemic situation, school opening should be reconsidered”. But, as it also recognized the political nature of this decision, it at least recommended to adopt specific measures, such as mandatory physical distancing, in classrooms and in canteens, aeration close to the “german protocol”, face masks for over 6, the deployment of a systematic testing campaign of schoolmates and teachers.

Except for the face mask, all the other recommendations for schools of the National Scientific Advisory Board on Covid-19 have been ignored.

Questioned during an interview, the Education Minister declares[11] that there is no scientific evidence that air treatment (HEPA filtration) can limit Covid-19 airborne contamination; on the contrary, it can have an adverse effect and favour contamination.

Thus, during the second wave, the situation in French schools looks like:


Fig. 2. 4th school reopening after autumn vacations. Crowded high school courtyard (a) and canteen (b). High School student’s confrontation with the police during November strikes (c) and elementary school classroom in October, (e) window opening impossible. More pics and information on Twitter #BonLundi and #BonMardi.

After November 9-10th teacher and high school student’s strike, a mixing of distance and presence learning has been implemented only for high schools, but once again each school can apply its own rules. In some high schools, all the students are in presence one week and on distance learning the other week!

Outbreaks in schools: from a “magical” world to the reality

Since September, the Education Minister communication focused on showing as school was not attained by the pandemic. In a Parliament audition, he said that the school reopening was done “with joy]. This joyful reopening was very soon questioned by professors, their labour unions. and also families. Student and teacher, professor contamination rose suddenly after the first week, entailing the classrooms and school closures. Official figures started quick to diverge from the reported cases in each school. A group of teachers “Les Stylos Rouges” started a collaborative map[3] reporting, after verification, all cases and measures taken for schools, notified by private citizens, pupil parents our school workers

Thus, children in the classroom with only one or two positive tested classmates are never considered as close contacts, they do not need to be quarantined, even if they do not wear the mask. The same if their teacher is a positive case.

Nevertheless, even considering the policy on quarantine and testing mentioned above, figures announced by the government to illustrate how the contamination in schools was well under control[4] , appeared really too low. After alerts on social networks, journalists inquired and confirmed that the contamination underestimation could reach even a 24 factor in some regions[5].

Thus, with such a context, it is very difficult to report school outbreaks and their transmission to the community. However, in some cases it was reported, as for example in the town of Saint-Epain,1,500 inhabitants, where a cluster at school spread to the older inhabitants[6]. It is also hard to know exactly the effect of half term vacations, figures from the Ministry would confirm the decrease in the contamination that immediately rose when one week later. However, as already discussed it is hard to trust such figures.

Finally, Covid19 spreading at school is still officially unknown and there does not seem to be the will to asses it.

Far beyond the second wave: winter is coming

On 24th November, the President Macron during a televised address to the nation said the worst of the second wave of the pandemic in France is over and that „We must do everything in our power to avoid a third wave and a third lockdown,” because even if „We have slowed the spread of the virus” but “ ” it is still very much present”. Surprisingly, he never pronounced the word “school” in his 3-step route out of lockdown, unless to say that in January University might start again in presence and high school to exit the 50% of distance learning allowed.