PARIS — Teachers across France staged a wide-ranging one-day strike Thursday to protest changes to Covid-19 rules that they say disrupted schools and are now too weak to protect against the Omicron variant that is rolling out across the country.
Tens of thousands of teachers and school staff, sometimes joined by students’ parents, marched in cities across the country in what was one of the largest school protests in France in decades.
The Education Ministry said nearly 40 percent of primary school teachers and nearly a quarter of secondary school teachers were on strike, though school unions cite the numbers as much higher at 75 percent and 60 percent. The leading union said it expects to close about half of all primary schools, or about 20,000 schools.
“All this irritation and anger has built up so far,” said Sophie Venetite, a teacher and spokesperson for a leading high school union.
The strike, which was supported by most of the country’s teacher unions, has become a major problem for President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which prides itself on keeping its schools open longer during the pandemic than in many other European countries.
“Overall, I think the choice we have made to keep schools open is the right choice,” Mr Macron said at a press conference on Tuesday.
The school policy is part of a social contract that Mr Macron argued would allow France to live with the virus by limiting pandemic restrictions in exchange for high vaccination rates.
But the rapidly expanding Omicron variant partially violated that contract.
France is now averaging nearly 300,000 new coronavirus cases a day, almost six times more than a month ago and far more than in any other period of the pandemic. This was stated by the country’s Minister of Health Olivier Veran. on twitter that he tested positive on Thursday.
The surge in infections is partly due to school-age children, who are now more likely than French adults to be infected with the virus.
To keep entire classrooms from being sent home or entire schools from closing, the government has put in place complicated testing rules that have baffled millions of parents and teachers. He then changed the rules twice within a few days. The test protocols have led angry parents and children to line up outside pharmacies and medical labs in the freezing cold.
Hoping to head off a wave of rising anger, Prime Minister Jean Castex said on Monday that protocols would be relaxed. Parents no longer have to pick up their children immediately after a classmate tests positive, and potentially contact children no longer need to be tested at pharmacies and laboratories to return to the classroom. Instead, tests can be done at home.
But teachers said the simplified rules increase the risk of infection at school. They also complained for weeks about a shortage of equipment such as air quality monitors and a shortage of high-protection masks.
The strike “shows a growing desperation in the schools,” a leading elementary school union said in a statement. “The current protocol not only fails to protect students, staff and their families, but it completely disrupts schools.”
The union has long been demanding a return to a rule introduced earlier this year that required classes to close at the first identified case of the coronavirus.
“They opened the school doors wide for Omicron and royally don’t give a damn about the teaching staff,” the school principals union said. tweeted, after Mr. Castex’s announcement.
Thursday’s marchers in Paris also expressed anger and annoyance at what they called a lack of preparation and anticipation from the government two years after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Coronavirus pandemic: what you need to know
“The epidemic needs to be curbed, but the policies chosen are inconsistent,” said Luisa Diego Taboada, an English teacher at a high school in a city southeast of Paris.
“We find ourselves applying protocol, two days later it changed, new protocol, another one,” she said as she marched outside the Luxembourg Gardens in central Paris. “We don’t have support, we don’t have funds.”
Ms. Venetitai, a spokesperson for a secondary school union, complained about the government’s handling of the pandemic, which she said was unsustainable. “We learn things at the last minute, without real consultation, while on the ground we do everything to keep the school running.”
Mr Macron acknowledged on Tuesday that schools are “obviously tired, tired, many restrictions” and urged people to be “patience” and “kindness” in this crisis. He was much less conciliatory last week when he used his most blunt language to urge recalcitrant, unvaccinated French people to get vaccinated.
The unusually wide response to Thursday’s strike calls reflected the level of anger among school staff. Almost every school union in the country joined the protest, as did a major parent federation, which urged parents to walk shoulder to shoulder with teachers.
Hervé Dardilla, the father of a 5-year-old boy, said he took part in the march to support teachers whose work “should be difficult” at the moment. He added that the coronavirus has caused an unprecedented level of anxiety at the school.
“That’s all kids are talking about right now,” he said, referring to the virus. “I want them to dream and learn like they used to.”
Adele Shoemaker provided a report from Paris.