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Teachers in France go on strike over handling of pandemic

Teachers want clarifications on rules and more protection
FILE-Students attend class on the first day of school for the 2021-2022 year at Gounod Lavoisier Primary school in Lille, northern France, Thursday, Sept. 2 2021. Less than two weeks after the winter term started, French teachers are already exhausted by the pressures of surging COVID-19 cases and they are walking out in nationwide strike organized by their unions to protest virus-linked class disruptions and ever-changing isolation rules. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler, File)

French teachers voiced anger at the way the French government is handling the pandemic in schools, denounced confusing rules and called for more protection during a nationwide strike on Thursday.

Exhausted by the pressures of surging COVID-19 cases, many teachers answered the call by 11 unions to protest virus-linked class disruptions and ever-changing isolation rules.

France is at the epicenter of Europe’s current fight against COVID-19, with new infections topping 360,000 a day this week, driven by the highly contagious omicron variant.

Health Minister Olivier Veran announced on Twitter Thursday that he tested positive for the virus and was self-isolating in order to continue working.

The teachers’ strike puts the government of President Emmanuel Macron under additional pressure a week after opposition lawmakers delayed implementation of a key measure that mandates proof of vaccination for entry into restaurants, cultural and sport facilities.

Teachers want clarifications on rules and more protections, such as extra masks and tests to help relieve the strain.

Among those at a demonstration in Paris’ city center was English teacher and SE-UNA union member Lilia Larbi who said that people are “fed up” with the situation at school.

“The strike is not against the virus, it’s against bad communication, changing rules… and the bad handling of the sanitary crisis,” she said, adding that the government “is denying reality.”

Larbi said she taught to only three children in her class on Wednesday because colleagues either tested positive for COVID-19 or were waiting for test results. “We feel like we’re babysitting” rather than teaching, she said.

Paris teacher Frédéric Le Bihan expressed “exasperation” at the confusing “orders and counterorders.”

Within a span of a week, authorities changed the rules on testing schoolchildren twice.

Le Bihan said teachers are under additional pressure from parents who expected them to implement government directives “which is not possible.”

Fatna Seghrouchni, a teacher in the Paris region and member of the Federation Sud Education union, said teachers are being asked “to do things without having the means to do them.”

Like many other protesters, Seghrouchni’s anger was directed at Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer who she said has shown teachers “contempt” by announcing last minute, virus-related rules in a newspaper interview to a newspaper instead of sending instructions directly to educators.

Blanquer has acknowledged that January has been “tough” for schools as 50,000 new COVID-19 cases have been detected among students in “recent days” and more than 10,000 classes cancelled. The figures are expected to worsen in the coming weeks.

Unions estimated that 62% to 75% of teachers were supporting the protest movement, depending on which school they’re posted. The government said 27% of teachers were on strike.

The SNUIPP teacher’s union is calling for a return to a previous rule that shuts classes down for a week if a child tests positive.

Teachers are also demanding higher quality masks, more testing at schools and devices in classes warning when ventilation is required.

The strike comes on the same day French senators voted a bill requiring adults to provide proof of vaccination to enter restaurants and bars, cinemas, theaters, museums, sports arenas and inter-regional trains. Unvaccinated kids between 12 and 17 can show a negative test.

The measure will come into force later than initially expected, after parliament approves the legislation by next week.

—Sylvie Corbet, The Associated Press

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