“I told him I loved him and I would always do my best,” said Grace.
This would be the last promise she ever made to her father while intubated in an intensive care unit for Covid-19 patients. He died the next day, April 9th last year, at the height of the first wave in France.
Grace’s world was destroyed. She told CNN she was afraid of going back to school last September in Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb northeast of Paris that was badly hit by the pandemic.
When she came back it was still the school she remembered. But nothing was the same for Grace, who didn’t want her last name published to protect her family.
She feared the other students would treat her differently and was surprised when one of her classmates confided in her that she too had lost her father to Covid-19.
In total, at least 20 students from their high school, Eugene Delacroix, in nearby Drancy, lost a relative of the virus in 2020, according to City Hall.
There is no evidence that these deaths were caused by infections in school. But CNN has spoken to Eugene Delacroix students who say they share a common burden: the fear of bringing Covid-19 home and infecting a loved one.
Open school policy
Aside from a brief shutdown at the start of the pandemic, France has made its open schools policy a point of pride in both reopening the economy and providing social service, with some parents relying on school meals to feed their children .
The government believes that the benefits of opening schools far outweigh the costs.
During the first wave of the pandemic last spring, the government closed schools in March before gradually reopening them in May and June.
Not all schools were able to comply with safety protocols, especially in poor areas.
Colleen Brown, who teaches English in classrooms with 30 children at Eugene Delacroix, said the restrictions were not enforceable at the start of the school year. Windows wouldn’t open, she said, some kids removed their masks, lacked cleaning staff, and hardly any tests for the virus.
“France may be exceptional in keeping schools open at all costs, but it wasn’t exceptional funding schools so they can do so safely,” Brown said.
Despite Brown’s requests and daily fear of entering the building, she said little was done about protective measures; Complaints that she and other teachers finally made to school officials in January fell on deaf ears.
CNN contacted the Creteil school board, which oversees Eugene Delacroix, but received no response.
Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer told CNN that he recognized that the guidelines that had been put in place were not perfect.
When this variant got to France and its schools, the grassroots movement “Stylos Rouge” (red pencils), which consisted of 72,000 educational workers, sued Blanquer. In March they accused him of failing to protect teaching staff who are in close contact with children “who are spreading the virus”.
And nowhere did this spread feel more acute than in Seine-Saint-Denis, the most severely affected region of France according to the Ministry of Health.
At the height of the third wave, when Eugene Delacroix virus cases began to rise, a total of 22 classes had to be closed after students and teachers tested positive for Covid-19, according to the teachers’ union. Government policy had been for three students to test positive before a class had to be quarantined. That was reduced to one student by March 2021.
Blanquer defended his open school policy to CNN. He said he made a decision in favor of the children and their future.
“It was necessary for children to go to school, not just for education and learning, but also for interacting with others and for psychological and health reasons,” said Blanquer. “In the crisis you show your real values and what is really important to us is the school. Therefore this crisis can be a (big) challenge for all of us because there is a lot of inconvenience for the future, but it is also an opportunity to become aware of what is really important. “
That strategy is reflected in Macron’s decision to hold up a strict lockdown early in 2021. He said the country needs to consider the mental health and economic implications in order to develop a balanced response to the third wave.
But between January and March, the fear of catching Covid-19 became part of school life for Eugene Delacroix’s 2,400 students, some students said. After Grace lost her father, she feared that she would bring the virus home.
“We weren’t worried about catching it, but what if we catch it and then bring it home and give it to a cousin or nephew? You’d feel awful even though it wasn’t your fault,” she said.
17-year-old Maëlle Benzimera, who visits Eugene Delacroix and lives at home with her parents, brother and sister, said she was also afraid of contaminating loved ones.
“I know I’ll be a little sick if I get the virus, but I won’t be sick enough to go to the hospital. If my parents or grandparents have the virus, I know they could die or could go to the hospital, “said Benzimera. “I’ve been really scared since September.”
Vaccines for teachers
It was only in April – given the rise in infections, the widespread distribution of the variant, which was first discovered in the UK, and warnings from hospitals that may need to screen patients – Macron announced a partial lockdown across France.
The president also ordered schools to be closed for three to four weeks, which significantly extended the Easter break. According to the Ministry of Health, infection rates among people under the age of 20 fell across the country in the weeks that followed.
Officials now say they are doing everything in their power to ensure schools can reopen safely, including introducing saliva tests and vaccines for teachers over 55 – which accounts for just 16% of all teachers, according to the Health Department. Elementary schools and kindergartens reopened on April 26, and high schools and middle schools on May 3.
More than 15 million people have received at least one dose of vaccine, according to the Ministry of Health, about 29% of France’s adult population. Macron promised to put in place “a specific strategy” for vaccinating teachers in April, but the under-55s won’t get priority until June.
Some epidemiologists and scientists have questioned the government’s policy of keeping schools open when transmission rates rise.
They pointed out that children are clearly a vector for transmission and that closing classes when a positive case occurs is not enough. To stop the spread, the entire school had to be closed.
Epidemiologist Catherine Hill argues that without large-scale testing, there is no way to determine the level of Covid-19 transmission in schools.
“It’s like trying to empty the bathtub with a strainer. It doesn’t work. It’s not a solution at all,” Hill explained. “You close the classes where there is a positive child, but the other children can go positive anytime you would have to do it again, and if you do 250,000 children a week out of a population of 6.6 million [in primary schools] , you’re not going anywhere. “
Given that around 5,000 people are currently being treated in intensive care units across the country in Covid-19, teachers believe that going back to school will mean only one thing: infection rates will rise – and they are still not protected.
Blanquer admits that the school situation “was not perfect,” but says that ultimately a long-term goal is to provide children with an education that the government would not compromise on.
Antonella Francini contributed to this report.