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French teachers strike over chaotic Covid-19 strategy for schools

Morning commuters wearing protective face masks wait to board a train at the underground metro railway station in the La Defense business district in Paris, France, on Wednesday, June 9, 2021. Talks with labor unions are underway for a broad framework agreement on working from home, lObs reported, citing an interview with Labor Minister Elisabeth Borne. Photographer: Nathan Laine/Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Reuters
13 Jan 2022 0

PARIS, Jan 13 (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of French teachers walked off the job on Thursday over what they say is the government's failure to adopt a coherent policy for schools to manage the Covid-19 pandemic and protect pupils and staff against infection.

Teachers, parents and school administrators have struggled to deal with the pandemic and the government’s twist and turns on COVID-19 rules at school. New testing requirements were announced on the eve of the return from Christmas holidays and changed twice since.

“We had reached such a level of exasperation, tiredness, and anger that we didn’t have any other option but to organise a strike to send a strong message to the government,” said Elisabeth Allain-Moreno, national secretary of the SE-UNSA teachers union.

Schools in Paris and beyond offered a mixed picture on Thursday morning, with some entirely closed because of the strike, some partly open and others operating normally. Some were open only for children of health workers.

Mirlene Pouvin, whose child is in a high school where some teachers were on strike and others present, said she sympathised with those who walked off the job.

“I understand them, because the (COVID) protocol is impossible to apply – whether it’s in schools or in hospitals. I hold no grudge against them,” she said after an early morning school drop-off in Paris.

Unions have said they expect many schools to be closed for the day and large numbers of teachers – including about 75% in primary schools and 62% in high schools – to join the one-day strike. Unions representing school directors, inspectors and other staff have also joined the strike.

The Education Ministry gave much lower figures, saying there was an average of 38.5% of teachers on strike in primary schools, and just under 24% in high schools.

 

‘EXHAUSTION AND EXASPERATION’

The government, having reversed an earlier policy of quickly shutting down classes with positive coronavirus cases, has been standing by its policy to keep classes open as much as possible, saying some degree of complication is the price to pay.

“I know it’s tough, but a strike does not solve problems. One does not strike against a virus,” Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told BFM TV.

Infections have surged in schools as France has set records with close to 370,000 new daily cases. Positive cases can result in dozens of pupils and staff being sent to labs and pharmacies for testing.

“The exhaustion and exasperation of the entire educational community have reached an unprecedented level,” a joint statement by 11 unions said.

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

The Education Ministry said it would provide strike turnout numbers later in the day.

(Reporting by Lea Guedj, Antony Paone; Writing by Ingrid Melander; editing by John Stonestreet, Angus MacSwan and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

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