Several doctors believe that schools should be closed to slow the spread of Covid-19, but teachers fear that the most vulnerable students will drop out if lessons are restarted entirely remotely.
While the arrival of Covid-19 variants raises fears of a progression of the epidemic, the positivity of the tests has increased in recent days among the youngest in France. As regularly since the start of the health crisis in France, the question of maintaining the opening of schools arises. Several scientists are calling for their closure, when teachers’ unions would prefer them to remain open as long as possible.
“There are several European countries which have taken this decision, which is difficult to take, but which is justified because of the significant impact of school, and in particular the time of the lunch break in the canteen, where we know that ‘It is very difficult to enforce barrier gestures, “said Tuesday on BFMTV Djillali Annane, head of the intensive care unit at the Raymond-Poincaré hospital in Garches, in Hauts-de-Seine.
“In the canteen, of course, we take off the mask”
“You have children and adults from different places who meet up throughout the day. And at noon, in the canteen, they eat without masks and talk to each other. Then in the evening, they go home,” recalls in L’Express epidemiologist Dominique Costagliola. Among the scenarios considered by the government, the closure of canteens to reduce possible contamination, is indeed on the table, because it is a place with higher contamination.
“In the canteen, of course, we take off the mask when we have lunch,” concedes Frédérique Rolet, general secretary of the SNES-FSU teachers’ union, on BFMTV. She proposes to feed the pupils in different rooms, but this would require more staff.
“This is the place where the application of barrier gestures is the most complicated”, explains Philippe Vincent, general secretary of the SNPDEN-UNSA management staff at BFMTV. But he adds that “in many cases” closing the canteens would de facto “close the colleges and high schools”, because the students spend the day in the establishment, and may live too far away to go home to eat.
“The application of the partly reinforced protocols made it possible to control, it seems to me, under good conditions the risks that we could know in this sector,” he adds.
“We must distinguish small children from middle and high school students”
The French study ComCor, aimed at determining the places of contamination in France, had underlined two points which cut across the problematic of schools: “More people to live in the home, especially with children in nurseries or in school”, is associated with a increased risk of catching Covid-19, and “meals play a central role in these contaminations, whether in a family, friendly environment, or to a lesser degree professional”.
“In families, where barrier gestures are no longer possible, such as at school, well there are children who have brought back the virus and infected” their relatives, explained in December the epidemiologist Arnaud Fontanet on BFMTV. “What is interesting is that elementary school children did not infect, which is consistent with other studies suggesting that children under ten are less contagious”, while college or high school children were able to infect their parents.
Several studies since the start of the pandemic show that children are much less carriers and contaminate less than adults, and in this sense, Djillali Annane suggests distinguishing the treatment between students according to their age.
“We must distinguish small children, roughly primary school and kindergarten, college and high school students, who are more frequently carriers,” he explains. “The prevalence of contamination or positive tests is not the same among children in elementary school versus middle school and high school. To consider them the same way may be making a big mistake.”
“We are torn between educational and health imperatives”
“It is not necessarily all or nothing. In England, schools are closed, but nurseries remain open”, continues the doctor, adding that “the most vulnerable, those who are in a precarious social situation, are taken care of in school “.
While teacher representatives struggle with school closures, they are not contradicting scientific findings. Their goal is to find solutions so that the most vulnerable students do not drop out of school. “What we see as a teacher is the damage caused by distance learning, we experienced it during confinement in March last year”, warns Frédérique Rollet.
“We are really torn between educational imperatives and health imperatives,” she notes.
“Absolute desire to preserve the school”
“The health situation must really be extremely serious to close schools,” Prime Minister Jean Castex said last week, “because we know that the consequences, including health, of the closing of schools, are absolutely dramatic”. The government is preparing for “all assumptions” but wants “to avoid the confinement of schools to the end,” a source told AFP on Monday. “We have an absolute will to preserve the school. It is essential for us”, we still assured this Tuesday at the top of the State, according to information from the political service of BFMTV.
The next decisions will be discussed this Wednesday at a Defense Council dedicated to the health crisis, before a government press conference on Thursday.
Salome Vincendon BFMTV reporter