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France kept classrooms open ‘at all costs.’ At a school where 20 pupils lost loved ones, some say the price was too high

Grace was full of hope as she entered the final stretch of high school. The 16-year-old was two years away from graduating, and she wanted to make her parents proud — especially her father.

“I told him I loved him, and I would always do my best,” Grace said.   

This would be the last promise she ever made to her father, as he lay intubated in an ICU unit for Covid-19 patients. He died the next day, on April 9 of last year, at the peak of the first wave in France.

Grace’s world was shattered. She told CNN she dreaded going back to school in Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb northeast of Paris that was hit hard by the pandemic, last September.

When she returned, it was still the school she remembered. But for Grace — who did not want her last name published to protect her family — nothing was the same.

She worried the other students would treat her differently, and was surprised when one of her classmates confided in her that she too had lost her father to Covid-19.

In all, at least 20 students from her high school, Eugene Delacroix, in nearby Drancy, lost a relative to the virus in 2020, according to the town hall.

Nothing suggests these deaths were caused by infections at the school. But CNN has spoken with students at Eugene Delacroix who say they share a common burden: The fear of bringing Covid-19 home and infecting a loved one.

Open schools policy

Aside from a brief closure near the start of the pandemic, France has made its open schools policy a point of pride in the name of both reopening the economy and delivering a social service, with some parents relying on school meals to feed their children.

The government’s stated conviction is that the benefits of opening schools far outweigh the cost.

“Let’s not forget what makes us proud. No other country in the European Union has left its schools open as much as France has,” France’s European affairs minister, Clement Beaune, tweeted this past March, a day before Italy shuttered its schools again due to rising infections.

France has only closed its schools for a total of 10 weeks since the beginning of the pandemic — one of the lowest rates in Europe, according to figures from UNESCO, compared to 35 weeks for Italy, 28 for Germany and 27 weeks for the UK.

During the first wave of the pandemic last spring, the government shuttered schools in March, before gradually reopening them in May and June.

“We need the children to go back to class because there’s a danger they’ll be left behind, learning gaps will appear and educational inequalities are exacerbated,” French President Emmanuel Macron told journalists during a visit to a school in a suburb northwest of Paris in May last year.

In September, it became mandatory for the more than 12 million schoolchildren in France to return to class. Those aged 11 and over had to wear masks, classrooms needed to be ventilated and social distancing was imposed in corridors and canteens.

Not all schools were able to respect the safety protocols, especially those in poor neighborhoods.

Colleen Brown, who teaches English at Eugene Delacroix to classrooms packed with 30 children, said the restrictions were impossible to implement at the start of the school year. Windows wouldn’t open, she said, some children removed their masks, they lacked cleaning staff and there was hardly any testing for the virus.

“France may be exceptional in that they’ve kept the schools open at all costs, but they have not been exceptional in funding the schools so that they can do that safely,” Brown said.

Despite Brown’s pleas and daily fear of going into the building, she said little was done in terms of protective measures; complaints she and other teachers eventually made to school officials in January fell on deaf ears.

CNN contacted the Creteil school board, which oversees Eugene Delacroix, but has not received a response.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told CNN he acknowledged that the policies put in place were not perfect.

Calls for closures

Meanwhile in the United Kingdom, most children were being taught from home after the government imposed a national lockdown and schools were closed as the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant, first identified in that country, raged.

When that variant made its way over to France and its schools, the “Stylos Rouge” (Red Pens) grassroots movement, made up of 72,000 education workers, sued Blanquer. In March they accused him of failing to protect teaching staff in close contact with children “who spread the virus.”

And nowhere was that spread felt more acutely than in Seine-Saint Denis, then the worst-hit region in France, according to the health ministry.

At the height of the third wave, as virus cases began to spike at Eugene Delacroix, a total of 22 classes had to close after students and teachers tested positive for Covid-19, according to the teachers’ union. The government’s policy had been that three students needed to test positive before a class had to quarantine. That was cut down to one student by March 2021.

The teachers’ union sent an open letter to Macron and Blanquer decrying the current situation and calling for the “immediate and temporary closure of the high school.” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, who is eyeing a bid for the presidency in 2022, echoed their call and asked for schools across the capital to close to rein in the spread of the virus, but no action was taken.

Blanquer defended his open schools policy to CNN. He said he made a choice in favor of the children and their future.

“It was necessary for children to go to school, not only because of the education and learning, but also for interactions with others and for psychological and health reasons,” Blanquer said.  “It’s in the crisis that you show your true values and what is really important for us is school. That’s why this crisis can be a (huge) challenge for all of us because there is a lot of inconvenience for the future but it’s also an opportunity to be more conscious of what is really important.”

This strategy is reflected in Macron’s decision to hold off on a strict lockdown at the start of 2021. He said the country needed to consider the impact on mental health and the economy in devising a balanced response to the third wave.

But between January and March, the fear of catching Covid-19 became part of school life for the 2,400 pupils at Eugene Delacroix, some students said.  After losing her father, Grace feared she would bring the virus home.

“We weren’t worried about catching it, but what if we caught it and then brought it home and passed it on to a cousin or nephew? You’d feel terrible even though it would not be your fault,” she said.

Maëlle Benzimera, 17, who attends Eugene Delacroix and lives at home with her parents, brother and sister, said she was also anxious about contaminating her loved ones.

“I know that if I catch the virus, I will be a little bit sick, but I won’t be sick enough to go to the hospital. Whereas if my parents or grandparents have the virus, I know that they could die or could go to the hospital,” Benzimera said. “I’ve been really scared since September.”

Vaccines for teachers

It wasn’t until April — when faced with soaring infections, the rampant spread of the variant first detected in the UK and warnings from hospitals they may have to triage patients — that Macron announced a partial lockdown across France.

The President also ordered schools to close for three to four weeks, essentially extending the Easter holidays. Infection rates among those aged under 20 dropped nationwide in the following weeks, according to figures from the health ministry.

Officials now say they are doing everything in their power so schools can reopen safely, including rolling out saliva-based testing and vaccines for teachers over 55 — which accounts for only 16% of all teachers, according to health ministry figures. Primary schools and kindergartens reopened on April 26 and high schools and middle schools on May 3.

More than 15 million people have received at least one dose of a vaccine, about 29% of France’s adult population, according to the health ministry. Macron vowed “a specific strategy” would be implemented for teachers to get vaccinated in April, but those under 55 won’t get priority until June.

Some epidemiologists and scientists have questioned the government’s policy of keeping schools open as transmission rates increased.

They pointed to the fact that children were clearly a vector for transmission and that closing classes when a positive case emerged was not enough. To stop the spread, the entire school needed to be shut down.

Epidemiologist Catherine Hill argues that without large-scale testing, there’s no way of knowing the level of Covid-19 transmission in schools.

“It’s like trying to empty your bathtub with a strainer. It doesn’t work. That’s not at all a solution,” Hill explained. “You close down the classes where there is one positive child, but the other kids can become positive any time so you would have to do it again, and if you do 250,000 kids per week out of a population of 6.6 million [in primary schools], you’re going nowhere.”

With about 5,000 people currently being treated in Covid-19 ICUs across the country, teachers believe a return to school will only mean one thing: Infection rates will pick up – and they are still not protected.

Blanquer admits that the situation in schools “has not been perfect,” but says that ultimately giving children an education is a long-term goal that the government wasn’t ready to compromise on.

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