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Teachers in France strike over COVID-19 health and safety protocols

(NEW YORK) — A nationwide strike took place in schools across France on Thursday as teachers and other school staff demonstrated against the government’s management of COVID-19 protocols in schools.

Teachers, other school staff and parents in the country have been complaining for months, saying the health protocols in schools are confusing and continually changing. The government changed the rules twice for schools in the past week.

They argued that they are facing the crisis with inapplicable measures, a growing work overload, teachers not being replaced when sick, no additional resources or staff to alleviate the issues and a lack of transparency from the education minister.

Teachers unions had called for a walkout to denounce the “indescribable mess” in schools as COVID-19 cases have surged and pharmacies have reported shortages of self-test kits since the beginning of the year.

The primary school teachers’ union, SNUipp-FSU, announced an estimated 75% participation rate among their ranks, and the secondary school union, SNES-FSU, said 62% mobilized. However, the Ministry of National Education claimed that 38.5% of primary school teachers and 23.7% of secondary school teachers participated.

“The teachers express their anger at this minister who does not hear them, who does not listen to what’s going on in the field, who does not listen to the distress present in schools and to all the possible dysfunctions, and above all a minister who addresses the press first before addressing the students,” a SNUipp-FSU representative told ABC News. “And so, the teachers are very angry.”

The leading parent association, the FCPE, also joined the movement in support of the teachers, and earlier this week called for a “white day” in schools, urging parents to keep their children at home Thursday.

FCPE co-president Nageate Belahcen said while the COVID-19 protocols look “pretty” on paper, there is “no pedagogical continuity.”

“Nothing is put in place because the means are not there, and there are no substitute teachers,” Belahcen told ABC News, adding that she is also concerned about exams occurring this year. “All this means that the parents are still very, very worried for the future of their children, for the well-being of their children, and above all, we cannot take this situation any longer.”

For weeks now, education professionals have been asking Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer for more staff and reinforced measures — including FFP2 masks for the teachers, CO2 sensors and air purifiers for classrooms — to fight against the growing cases of COVID-19.

Blanquer has come under fire multiple times since the beginning of the pandemic due to concerns over the way he has handled the COVID-19 crisis.

“When will you present your resignation, Mr. Minister?” Sylvie Tolmont, a national assembly deputy from Sarthe, asked Tuesday during a government questioning session. This isn’t the first time his resignation has been asked for since he took office in 2017.

In a bid to appease the demonstrators, Prime Minister Jean Castex met with the unions Thursday evening, along with the health and education ministers.

After a discussion that lasted three hours, Blanquer announced he had agreed to some of the unions’ requests, including the distribution of 5 million FFP2 masks to schools, the recruitment of 3,300 contractual substitute teachers and additional non-teaching and administrative staff.

There has been a similar dispute over health and safety in schools in the United States. After five days of canceled classes, the Chicago Teachers Union voted, with 56% in favor, to approve a COVID-19 agreement with Chicago Public Schools that included expanded testing, masks and a plan to shut down schools during outbreaks.

Thursday’s strike was a “historic mobilization” for France, according to SNUipp-FSU, considering the number of strikers, the unity between teachers’ unions and the fact that the FCPE participated as well.

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