France: Teacher unions insist on health guarantees for students and their teachers for the reopening of education facilities

published 15 May 2020 updated 9 June 2021

French teachers have reacted to the government’s announcement of the relaxation of the lockdown and reopening of school facilities from 11 May, asking the public authorities for an assurance that the school year will be restarted with face-to-face education and full health safety measures to prevent the propagation of COVID-19 among students and teachers.

SNES-FSU: act collectively to impose health guarantees

Benoît Teste, secretary general of the Fédération syndicale unitaire (United Trade Union Federation – FSU), and Frédérique Rolet, secretary general and spokesperson for the Syndicat national des enseignements de second degré (National Secondary Education Union – SNES-FSU) have announced that:

  • The health protocol for the reopening of secondary schools(in French) should be a complete, reliable document with clear requirements to ensure absolutely safe teaching and learning for everyone. (There is also a health protocol for the reopening of primary schools.)
  • The teacher unions fear there could be several different interpretations of this document at local level leading to great confusion and making parents, teachers and all education staff anxious and reticent at best about returning to education facilities. Nor are the heads of education facilities ready or willing to accept the full burden of responsibility for ensuring safety against the coronavirus.
  • Prime Minister Édouard Philippe has announced a staggered reopening of schools and education establishments, in a decision based more on political than health considerations. In fact, nothing has been said about the provision of masks, hydroalcoholic gel or student transport.

In her editorial of 25 April titled “Cavalier seul”(Going it alone - in French), Rolet stressed that “conditions for any return to school must, as a priority, be drawn up in line with health and safety requirements, respecting the teaching expertise of the staff and their working hours”.

She also regretted that the date of 11 May chosen by President Emmanuel Macron for relaxing the lockdown and reopening primary schools “appeared a purely arbitrary one, following communication objectives” and that the government had “been called to the rescue to try to provide the [President’s] proposals with substance”.

She also regretted the absence of any agreement between the Education Minister and the trade unions, parents’ associations, secondary school organizations and regional associations to draw up the plan to reopen education facilities, which was presented within less than a week.

The SNES-FSU has also indicated that “it has always made the imperative of health and safety its first demand as a prerequisite of any return to school whatever the date (18 May, 25 May, beginning of June, etc.). No reopening can be envisaged if the health conditions ensuring the health and safety of staff and students are not met. The health of everyone is the most important thing.”

It therefore published a 19-page report to its members on the measures to follow to ensure health and safety at work(in French). In particular, the union’s recommendations to them include: “Do not allow conditions to be imposed for the return to face-to-face education that put you in danger. You are – we are – the public service professionals of French national education. We know our facilities; we know specifically what it means to work there every day. We are acting together to impose our reopening conditions for our own health and safety and that of our students.

SNUipp-FSU: teaching staff, with little support from the public authorities, concerned about a badly prepared return to school

The results of a Harris Interactive survey commissioned by the Syndicat national unitaire des instituteurs, professeurs des écoles et PEGC (United National Union of Primary and Secondary School Teachers – SNUipp-FSU), published on 10 May, also confirmed the analysis and demands the union has been developing since the beginning of the lockdown period. They shed light on the essential role of primary school teachers during this period and the fact that they have by no means had the resources and support they need from the ministry. More than three-quarters of them consider it difficult to do their jobs during the lockdown. They have been able to depend only on themselves and their colleagues. More than one-third of them state that they have had no relations with their educational facility, while almost three-quarters of them have not been provided by the facility with the tools that would have made their work easier.

The survey also shows great concern, shared by parents, about the premature and poorly prepared return to school from 11 May. That is why the SNUipp-FSU have asked the minister for answers.

The union explains that “the reasons for this concern are a mixture of the risk of it being the origin of a second wave of the epidemic; the great difficulty in applying barrier measures with young children, particularly in nurseries; mingling by adults meeting several times every day; and even the prospect of school being reduced to an implementation of the health protocol without games or interaction; as well as the lack of specific treatment for schools in the “red zone” (those most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in France). ”

For the union, “the minister must take into account this unease and rule out any pressure on staff”. “Schools cannot be reopened at any price.”

UNSA-Education: a successful relaxation of the lockdown with the proposed Power to Live Pact

Meanwhile, the Union nationale des syndicats autonomes–Éducation (National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions-Education – UNSA–Éducation) has insisted that “from 11 May, France is moving, in stages, into the relaxation of the lockdown. This new period is marked by legitimate concerns, but it should also offer a glimpse of the post-crisis period.”

That is why the union considers the “15 essential measures for the end of the lockdown” established by the Power to Live Pact as an important stage for envisaging the future.

The Power to Live Pact includes environmental protection associations, trade unions, insurance companies and public associations involved in education and the fight against poverty and exclusion. UNSA-Éducation, through its UNSA confederation, was among the first to sign this pact, which includes a series of 66 proposals on social and environmental issues to give everyone “the power to live”.

To help relax the lockdown successfully, the signatory organizations have proposed 15 measures to be put in place, particularly targeting the fight against inequality and exclusion, the preservation of the environment and also measures linked to education and the protection of children. Certain measures are directly applicable, while others are planned for the slightly longer term, but together they all show what the world should be like after the crisis, together with the issues we must deal with together.

On 29 April, UNSA-Éducation also recognized that the school reopening plan made a “peaceful return on 11 May impossible” and that “we will carefully scrutinize the health protocol the Minister has just announced for the weekend. We continue to demand that the return of students and staff should be gradual, partial and, above all, that it should take place only if the clearly defined health conditions are guaranteed.”

It considered that “clarifying the objectives to reduce the pressure is a necessity”, “all the staff in this crisis and respect for protective health rules must be taken into account” and “to succeed with the reopening, the teams must be allowed time; clarity and trust  for both primary and secondary schools”.

On 8 May, UNSA-Éducation also passed on the publication by the Conseil scientifique de l’Éducation nationale(Scientific Council of National Education - CSEN) of its “Recommendations to accompany the lockdown and exit from it”.

The CSEN’s has established its proposals because it finds that many students have given up due to lack of autonomy and a digital education deficit.

To support teachers and the education authorities throughout the relaxation of the lockdown, which risks being a long process, the CSEN has presented five main recommendations:

  • Help students understand and prevent the epidemic.
  • Prioritize teaching practices promoting autonomous learning.
  • Seek support from digital resources.
  • Ensure the fundamentals: nutrition, physical activity, sleep, kindness.
  • Prepare for “the day after”.

Education International has also published its guidelines for reopening schools and school facilities, available here.