France Is Trying to Re-Open Schools. But Are Their Plans Realistic?

France, one of the European Union countries hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been in a state of shutdown much like many other countries in the world in an effort to slow the spread of the deadly virus. Since the country shut down on March 12, schools, offices, and public institutions have been closed to the public. Now, France has begun to gradually re-open their economy in a process they’re referring to as deconfinement. The first sector of the economy to be re-opened? Schools, it turns out. 

While the schools are reopening across the country, Quartz reports that France is allowing parents to decide whether or not they are comfortable with bringing their kids back to school. The country won’t send all under-18’s back to school en masse, rather, the country will begin school reopenings with pre-k, kindergarten, and elementary students first. 

The schools will have to reopen under stringent health guidelines that quite frankly seem unattainable. Socially-distant recess will be required (it’s unclear how teachers will enforce kids not being able to play with one another without getting involved physically) and disinfecting all toys and pencils after every use, which also seems unrealistic. Schools and regions have tons of leeway over when and if they will re-open if they feel they won’t be able to follow those guidelines or if their number of COVID cases require stringent rule-following.

And then there’s the fact that many parents are concerned about bringing their kids back to school and might hold them at home since they’re legally allowed to. According to a survey done at a private Montessori in Paris, only 1 to 8 percent of parents said they’d bring their children back to school this month with only 1 to 3 kids per class, and at another school, 88 percent said they’d hold their kids back for health concerns alone. 

France is not the first European country to start sending kids back to school. In Germany, schools have opened across the country and in China, kids have returned to school with temperature checks before they enter schools and eat lunch in cafeterias that are separated by plastic dividers. In Australia, schools have opened by holding classes one day a week for a quarter of students from each grade with the rest of the days being online learning.

Hong Kong and Japan have opened on a similar schedule. While reopening schools is the absolute first step necessary to start to reopen other parts of the economy — if kids don’t have a place to go during the day, many parents can’t go to work, essentially stalling out an economy before it has a chance to even think about recovering — it’s also a legitimate risk. 

There’s still very little research on how COVID-19 affects kids, and whether or not it’s as limited an effect as early research has suggested. Reports of Kawasaki disease and toxic shock syndrome for kids who get COVID have also fueled concerns for parents. There’s concern that, because kids often don’t show symptoms of COVD-19, they may become the new super-spreaders of the disease. Many teachers, who are over 60 or can’t return to work due to health concerns, might not be able to instruct kids in classrooms for quite some time.

To the extent that teachers can enforce social distancing among young children, who struggle with boundaries, who want to play with one another, and who are, overall, covered in germs, they will try. They will try to disinfect pencils and toys after every use in the chaos of early childhood classrooms. It might be impossible, and parents might not want to subject their kids to the health risk. But it’s also a necessary first step at a return to “normal” life.

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