France: wide participation in strike action against the management of the health crisis in schools

published 13 January 2022 updated 18 February 2022

Education unions in France mobilised on 13 January calling for staff to be respected and that schools have the resources they need to function amid the COVID-19 health crisis. The trigger for the strike was the health protocol for schools, announced in the press just hours before the start of the new school term on 3 January and since amended on two occasions.

Ensuring the safety of students, staff and their families

“Since the beginning of the new school term in January, the entire educational community has reached unprecedented levels of exhaustion and exasperation. Responsibility for this chaotic situation lies squarely with the minister and the government, given the constant changes of tack, the untenable protocols and the lack of resources given to ensure the functioning of the education system,” notes the Interfederal Call, bringing together France’s national education workers’ federations (FSU, UNSA, FO, CGT Éducation, SNALC, SNE, and SUD Éducation), the Federation of Parents’ Councils (FCPE) and secondary school organisations (MNL and FIDL).

These organisations called on all teaching staff to go on strike and on the entire educational community to mobilise on 13 January to voice their anger and to secure a coherent policy of protection and prevention that meets the health, social and schooling challenges at hand.

They deplored the fact that, “despite an unprecedented rise in the epidemic, schools are not equipped with the protective measures and arrangements needed to ensure the safety of pupils, staff and their families. The piecemeal return of students, which requires pedagogical adjustments, makes learning conditions difficult. The shortage of replacement staff and the management of tests and student absences are seriously undermining working conditions. Yet all schools should have the means to operate in complete safety.

They insisted on the need for “another way of managing the epidemic in schools, with the resources and protections needed to deal with the crisis by drawing up a workable protocol – one that does not create difficulties for staff – on the management of positive cases, contact cases and preventive test campaigns, providing staff, schools and establishments with protective equipment and allocating the necessary human resources, through the creation of posts via the supplementary lists, for example, at the same time as taking immediate steps to arrange a supplementary budget.”

Seventy-five per cent of pre-school and primary school teachers on strike

Initial estimates, published on 12 January by the SNUipp-FSU teachers’ union, forecast that 75 per cent of pre-school and elementary school teachers would be on strike and half of the country’s schools would be closed. These are “historic” figures, according to the union, and highlight the fact that “not only does the current protocol fail to protect students, staff and their families, but it also creates total disorder in schools”.

“Enough is enough! It is time to make the minister understand that our schools cannot function like this, between the ghost protocol and the contempt,” said the SNES-FSU union representing secondary education workers.

Schools at breaking point

Just a few days into the start of the new school term, secondary schools are already reaching breaking point, argues the SNES-FSU, with schools overwhelmed by the management of absences and contact cases, teachers not replaced, half-board in disarray, no carbon dioxide sensors and no way to ventilate rooms properly. “This is all an illustration of the government’s refusal to invest in making schools safe,” said the union.

It also deplores the fact that expired self-tests are being distributed in some schools and that, after 20 months of epidemic, “the government is only just beginning to understand the value of surgical masks for national education, and schools are still not properly equipped to meet the crucial task of ventilation”.

National education has even seen its resources lowered, reported the SNES-FSU, with “7,490 jobs cut since 2018, which has exacerbated the already deficient replacement capacities. How can we believe there is any consideration for our education system when nothing has been done in 20 months to adapt it to the health crisis?”

The union describes the communication strategy of the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, as “intolerable”, explaining that “since the onset of the epidemic, it has been guided first and foremost by the imperatives of political communication rather than by a concern for communication that respects the staff. On many occasions, staff have found out through the press how their day-to-day work was to be organised.”

Since the onset of the health crisis, staff have been working hard to keep the public education service going

It also stresses that since the onset of the health crisis, staff have been working hard to keep the public education service afloat, often single-handedly, in the midst of ministerial orders and counter-orders, or even contempt, such as the ministerial use of the term ‘absenteeist’ in reference to sick teachers”.

To cope with the 5th wave, the SNES-FSU is calling for:

  • Appropriate protective equipment for all staff and students: FFP2 masks, surgical masks, CO2 sensors, air purifiers, self-tests;
  • The postponement from March to June of Baccalaureate specialty exams;
  • Staff recruitment to strengthen schooling;
  • The isolation of intra-family contacts; and
  • The expansion of the replacement pool by freezing job cuts, creating the posts required to meet needs and recourse to supplementary lists.

UNSA Education, for its part, underlines that, “while staff have been mobilising all their energy for the past two years to prop up an education system shaken by the pandemic, the Ministry keeps adding crisis to crisis. The national education system as a whole is being put under pressure by the disconnect between the government’s announcements and the realities on the ground.”

The union points out that “the level of exasperation among staff is immense given the delayed responses to the issue of protective equipment or the constantly changing protocols that cannot actually be implemented (management of contact cases, testing periods, etc.)”.

For UNSA Éducation, “The limit has been reached!” and “the denial of the reality on the ground must stop, so that needs can be anticipated”. Similarly, immediate action must be taken to ensure the necessary protections (masks, self-tests, etc.), air quality measures and greater human resources.

The need for a workable protocol and instructions that are in line with reality and communicated clearly and directly

It also points out that “a workable protocol and instructions that are in line with reality, communicated clearly and directly, are essential to ending the chaotic management of the crisis. It is also essential that the decision can be made to temporarily close a class, a school or establishment when necessary. Anything that is not essential to these immediate management needs should be effectively postponed, and combining face-to-face and distance learning should be ruled out. It is time to listen to the hundreds of thousands of women and men who have kept schools going during this exceptional crisis and who have now reached breaking point.”

The union reiterated the ongoing demands made to Minister Blanquer to help manage the crisis over the long term, such as:

  • Procedures that take into account the necessary precautionary and management periods when there are positive pupils;
  • The provision of protective masks for staff (the surgical masks awaited as well as FFP2 masks for those who want them) and self-tests for staff;
  • Tests framed by public health reasoning and with the appropriate resources;
  • CO2 sensors and air purifiers;
  • The recruitment of staff on supplementary lists, as well as contractual staff, until the end of the school year, and the hiring of teaching assistants;
  • Prioritisation of work with the postponement of everything that is not essential to the management of the crisis (meetings, drafting of projects, training, surveys, monitoring of home schooling, etc.);
  • The implementation of telework in accordance with the recommendations of the civil service, as soon as it is possible, especially in academic services but also in the EPLEs (Local Public Education Establishments), while respecting the organisation of the service; and
  • Non-combination of face-to-face and distance learning. The minister should not only write down in black and white what he says to union representatives but should also communicate it publicly, especially to parents.

Support from parents

The Federation of Parents’ Councils (FCPE), the largest organisation of pupil’s parents, called on families “not to send their children” to school to support the teachers’ mobilisation on 13 January, “to tell the National Education minister and the government that enough is enough”.

“Like teachers, parents are tired of having to endure changing protocols that invariably place a heavy burden on pupils and educational teams,” said the FCPE, in a statement. The relaxation of the protocol announced on 10 January by Prime Minister Jean Castex has not changed the “rare” position of the FCPE, according to the federation’s spokesman Rodrigo Arenas. The difficulties in obtaining self-tests from pharmacies make parents fear persistent barriers to compliance with the protocol and the burden of nasopharyngeal testing, which is particularly distressing for younger pupils, “continues to weigh on children”. The solution, according to the federation, remains “to screen children in schools with saliva tests”.

International solidarity with French colleagues

In a letter to SNES-FSU general secretary, Sophie Vénétitay, the National Education Union (NEU) joint general secretaries Mary Bousted and Kevin Courtney expressed the solidarity of British teachers with their French counterparts:

“We are writing to send solidarity greetings on behalf of the NEU’s Executive Committee ahead of tomorrow’s strike by teachers and education staff across France over COVID-19 mitigations in schools and other educational establishments.

We congratulate the French education unions for taking action to back their demand that schools and colleges have access to mitigations such as CO2 monitors and high-quality masks.”

Education International’s General Secretary David Edwards also expressed solidarity with the French education unions.