Thousands of schools closed in France on Thursday as more than 75,000 teachers marched to protest the government’s protocol for keeping COVID-19 out of the classroom. They say the system has become baffling, ineffective, and untenable since the omicron variant upended the old way of doing things.
That much will sound familiar to anyone following the challenges of keeping schools open in the United States, where COVID case counts have smashed all previous records. In Chicago, public schools were closed for a week because of a standoff between the teachers union and the mayor. In other big cities, teachers and students say the system is beginning to break—while parents and politicians are loathe to repeat the lengthy remote-learning experiments of 2020 and 2021. All in all, it has all the makings of an intractable societal problem that could fuel intra–Democratic Party warfare for years to come.
Here’s where things diverge: In France, the teacher strike earned the support of an alphabet soup of organizations related to education, including strike-averse syndicates, federal bureaucrats, and three national associations of high school students. Crucially, the country’s largest association of parents with school-age kids—the very people most impacted by teachers’ absence from the classroom—also urged parents to keep their children at home. One in three instructors were on strike, a strong showing in a country with some of the smallest unions in Europe. To have such a broad coalition in support of the walkout, Le Monde remarked in an editorial, was exceptional.
Similarly, it was no surprise to see that a march of 10,000 teachers in Paris buckled to rubberneck the tight circle of cameras surrounding Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the anti-establishment left-wing presidential candidate who’s a regular presence at strikes and demonstrations. Perched on a bench, he called the minister of education a “cretin” and a “good for nothing” who had “half-destroyed the schools.” Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, the socialist candidate for president, was also in attendance. The ecologist candidate Yannick Jadot marched in Grenoble.
But the strikers also found support from every other segment of France’s splintered electoral politics: Damien Abad, the education advisor to the right-wing presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse, said the strike was against the government’s “Kafkaesque vision of the health protocol.” Far-right candidate Éric Zemmour said the strike was “legitimate” and the government is “ruining children’s lives.” And his rival Marine Le Pen said she understood the strike perfectly, and that teachers were right to be fed up.
Some of that solidarity simply reflects the fact that France has a centrist president who is favored to win in April’s election and become the country’s first two-termer since Jacques Chirac in 2002. As with the Yellow Vests movement of 2018, every political challenger wants to be an ally of the people in the streets—and take shots at Emmanuel Macron.
But the support for teachers also reflects a universal consensus that the system that worked to keep French schools open in person even through a smothering lockdown last winter—a point of pride for the Macron government and for teachers themselves—has been overwhelmed by the explosion of omicron cases. In the Paris region, one in 25 people has tested positive in the last seven days alone.
What to do this time? In France, responsibility for all things school falls squarely to the minister of education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, who has been ridiculed as a pompier pyromane—a pyromaniac firefighter, someone who is creating more problems than he solves. Among his many gaffes: blaming staffing problems on a wave of “absenteeism” among teachers, and announcing health measures to the media and letting teachers figure them out by reading the newspaper. On Tuesday, he told French TV, “You can’t go on strike against a virus.” The teachers’ retort was everywhere on Thursday: We’re going on strike against you. Blanquer’s bald head was portrayed as a spiky morsel of COVID-19.
It helps French teachers to have such a powerful and outspoken adversary. (Lightning-round quiz for the parents in the room: Can you name the U.S. Secretary of Education?) As omicron thinned classrooms and parents scrambled to fulfill testing requirements for their kids last week, Blanquer found time to attend a conference at the Sorbonne to denounce the creeping threat of “wokeism.”
The more substantive knock against the minister of education is that he cannot seem to figure out what to do about exposures in the classroom. Granted, it’s a tough question. But since kids came back from winter break 10 days ago, the rules for COVID exposure at school have changed three times(!). For parents with children of different ages, vaccination statuses, and exposure timelines, following the rules has become a test of endurance. As a comedian joked on the French radio Thursday morning, Blanquer can change the rules of the game if he wants—he’s also the minister of sport.
The specifics of these different protocols are too complicated to go into here, but the general theme is that Macron’s government wants to reduce the burden on parents and children from December, when COVID-exposed toddlers had to wait hours in the cold for PCR tests to return to class. Now they’re supposed to take three tests at home, and report to school on the honor system.
The most militant of the teachers’ unions would like to see those rules revert to an older paradigm, in which all students in a class were sent home after one positive case—a recipe for mass school closures. But the teachers I spoke to weren’t on board with that. They weren’t in favor of more testing. Even those who aren’t parents know how stressful it has been to organize childcare and corral tests, not to mention put a swab up a six-year-old’s nose three times a week. No one I spoke to wanted to return to remote learning, except as an emergency, classroom-specific measure when half the students were out sick. If there’s one thing that unites the French, it’s the warm sense of feeling superior to America.
“Don’t think we want the schools closed,” said Sylvie, who teaches first graders in a low-income neighborhood in Paris’s western suburbs. “I know in the U.S.—I don’t really know if you’ve opened them entirely yet—but in any case, we don’t want to close the schools. We want them open and in good condition.” (The Biden administration says 96 percent of U.S. schools are open in January, up from 46 percent at this time last year.)
Sylvie’s classroom has 12 students, but half of them are out for COVID exposure on any given day right now. That makes it impossible to keep up with the curriculum, which is teaching them to read.
From her, and from other teachers, I heard ideas that cut across the now-entrenched positions in the U.S., where many parents and politicians, still fuming over the lengthy school closures of 2021, seem to have run out of patience. Teachers (and many students) say COVID is seriously disrupting their instruction, and as Jessica Winter put it recently, “preemptive capitulation” to the virus has been presented as pragmatism.
Sylvie wanted a short pause in in-person school to reset the COVID exposure clock and get all her kids back into class at the same time. But she also thought her kids should be able to take their masks off. Pauline Jeanney, a high school history teacher who was marching with her mother, also a retired teacher, had a similar proposal: a 10-day reset for her class, which is routinely missing a quarter of its students even as preparation for crucial spring exams begins, but also, relaxed exposure requirements for high schoolers who have been vaccinated.
More than anything, their march was an eruption of anger against the “contempt” with which they feel Blanquer has treated them. They wanted more substitute teachers. They wanted air filters. High-quality masks. Better communication. Not to be charged with tracking and policing their own students’ testing history.
Thursday’s walk-out brought instant results. Eager to avoid seeing one of the administration’s triumphs dissolve into a Yellow Vest-style weekly protest, Macron’s top cabinet officials met with unions on Thursday and delivered 5 million filtration masks for schools, bi-weekly policy meetings with unions, and a hiring spree that will include 1,700 “anti-coronavirus mediators” to handle virus work like in-school testing.
It was strange, after years of demonstrations against COVID restrictions and vaccines across the developed world, to see so many people take to the streets for something more complicated: a better-organized system that keeps kids learning, teachers healthy, and parents sane. It might turn out to be impossible to reconcile the interests of teachers and parents when it comes to the ultra-contagious omicron variant in the classroom. But on Thursday, at least, no one seemed short on ideas.