PARIS — Across France, teachers walked out Thursday to protest working conditions in schools as the country faces a record wave of infections due to the Omicron coronavirus variant.
Teachers allege the government’s new coronavirus guidelines do not protect staff and have disorganized classrooms.
With French President Emmanuel Macron expected to stand for re-election, the protests are bad news as his government has been making the case that its management of the pandemic has been successful. Health Minister Olivier Véran himself tested positive, he announced Thursday on Twitter.
The protests have put Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer on the defense after a series of blunders over the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sixty-two percent of staff in primary and secondary schools have gone on strike, said the Snes-FSU, the largest teachers’ union in French secondary education.
“A majority of teachers are going on strike, there’s a deep anger against the disdain of the [education minister] Blanquer,” wrote the union in a tweet. Another union representing primary school teachers reported that 75 percent of teachers were on strike.
According to figures from the education ministry reported by Le Monde, only 32 percent of staff were on strike.
France is currently battling a surge in cases due to the Omicron variant, while hospital beds are still full of patients who were infected by the Delta variant. On Wednesday, there were 360,000 new cases according to France’s public health body; the number of new cases compared to the overall population is among the highest in Europe, according to POLITICO’s live tracker.
Large demonstrations are expected later Thursday as almost all teachers’ unions have called on staff to go on strike, in a rare show of unity among unions. The movement is also backed by the FCPE, the main organization representing parents of school pupils.
Blanquer in the firing line
The government has reviewed COVID-19 guidelines in schools several times since the end of the Christmas break.
In order to avoid school closures, pupils who are coronavirus contact cases have to take three tests in order to stay in school. But this has led to massive queues outside chemists and labs as parents repeatedly test their children.
In a bid to make life easier for parents, testing requirements were reviewed. The new rules allow parents to only perform rapid tests themselves instead of having to go to a pharmacy or a lab for the first one.
But changing instructions have led to confusion among parents and teachers, and fears that positive cases will be missed.
“The government announces things but doesn’t think about what that means for staff on the ground,” said Olivier Flipo, the headmaster of a school in the greater Paris region, in an interview with AFP. “What they are asking us to do is hellish and it’s all starting to disintegrate.”
Teachers unions are demanding better protection against the coronavirus in classrooms and the distribution of better-quality masks and carbon-dioxide detectors.
Teachers’ unions have also accused the education minister of being tin-eared to their concerns.
Speaking on French TV channel BFMTV, Blanquer dug his heels in and accused teachers of “going on strike against a virus.”
“It’s a shame to have a day that will bring more disruption to the system,” he said. “There are problems, I’m the first to admit it. It’s difficult but it’s difficult in every country.”
But Blanquer has been accused of failing to give clear guidance to the country and of giving last-minute instructions to teachers.
On Monday, Prime Minister Jean Castex announced the most recent measures on schools, replacing Blanquer in what was seen as a snub.
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