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Boulogne-Billancourt: Less than a week has gone by since French schools reopened after Christmas, but at the Jean Renoir high school in Boulogne-Billancourt, one in four teachers and nearly 50 pupils are already sick with COVID-19.
With new testing and contact tracing rules introduced at the start of this term, the headteacher, Aristide Adeilkalam, now faces a huge challenge.
Suzanne, 5, is tested for COVID-19 in Albigny-sur-Saone, north of Lyon.Credit:AP
“It’s very, very, very complicated,” Aidelkalam said, his glasses fogging up because of his face mask.
“Forty-seven pupils have COVID. I need to identify the contacts for each. Up until now, we could handle cases one at a time, as they arrived. Now we’re overwhelmed.”
The school, in the suburbs of Paris, has 620 students and 40 teachers.
France has put emphasis on keeping schools open, no longer rushing to shut down classes with positive coronavirus cases. It chose not to extend the Christmas holidays to help control the Omicron and Delta waves, unlike some of its EU neighbours.
A note is fixed to the door of a school in Paris telling parents that a pupil has tested positive and that other students need negative tests to attend.Credit:AP
However, schools say it has become very hard to cope with the increase in COVID-19 cases and the new testing rules.
When a child tests positive for COVID-19, the rest of the class must each perform three tests over five days – the first at a testing centre or pharmacy, followed by two self-administered tests.
While the protocol outlines a five-day testing plan, those five days are frequently stretching to a week or more, depending on test availability.
Testing is free for all fully vaccinated French residents and the system has been both consistent and reliable throughout the pandemic – certainly relative to most other countries.
However, the new three-test protocol for students and a record numbers of COVID cases in the community have finally started to exacerbate queues at pharmacies and testing labs.
Pharmacies across the country have spent the week chasing supplies of self-test kits to meet demand from parents.
In the week to January 2, a record 8.3 million coronavirus tests were carried out in France – and that was before the holiday period ended.
‘On the edge of blowing up’
Teachers’ unions are angry. One union – the SNUipp-FSU – has called for strike action, saying “schools are on the edge of blowing up.”
Accusing the government of taking “a risky gamble” with the health of teachers and pupils, the union wants a return to shutting down each class where there are COVID-19 cases.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer rejected the criticism on Friday.
“Of course it’s tough, of course it’s complicated,” he said of the new testing protocol, adding that it’s the price the country must pay to keep schools open.
“It would be easy to say that ‘kids are not going to school any more’ – that’s not what I want.”
Despite a slow start, 90 per cent of those aged 12 and over in France have received at least two doses of a coronavirus vaccine. Vaccination to children from age five began at the end of December.
France reported 261,481 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, less than the record of more than 332,000 set on Wednesday. The seven-day average of new cases is now more than 200,000 for the first time.
And it’s not just teachers who are fed up. At the Jean Renoir school, 11-year-old Drissa Keita Cisse is also feeling pandemic fatigue.
“COVID just isn’t letting go,” he said with a sigh.
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