French teachers are staging a mass strike that could close half of schools in protest against the government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis.
French ministers have made keeping schools open a priority, despite a recent surge in Covid-19 cases, fuelled by the Omicron variant.
Teachers say Covid rules in school are confusing and constantly changing.
Many primary schools will be closed on Thursday as unions expect about 75% of teachers go on strike.
The nationwide strike could be the biggest in decades as 11 unions representing teachers, parents and other school staff vent their anger at the government’s Covid policies.
“The exhaustion and exasperation of the entire educational community have reached an unprecedented level,” the 11 unions said in a statement.
The unions said the government and the education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, were to blame for what they called a “chaotic situation” in schools.
The main trigger for the strike was France’s health protocol, which has been changed a number of times since December.
Under rules announced on 2 January, a day before the start of the new school year, students exposed to a Covid case were required to take an antigen or PCR test and then self-test two and then four days later to continue classes in person.
As coronavirus infections surged, the rule change caused massive pressure on testing capacity, with long queues seen outside pharmacies.
In response to this huge demand, the government this week eased rules on Covid checks for students.
On Monday, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said students will be allowed to do self-tests instead of a PCR if one of their classmates tested positive.
But the relaxation has caused concerns for the safety of teachers as France reported a record 368,149 new coronavirus cases on Tuesday.
The unions say they the government’s lack of communication, frequent changes to testing, and insufficient protection against Covid has left them unable to teach properly.
The strike “demonstrates the growing despair” among teachers, the Snuipp-FSU union said.
But the government has defended its policies, which it says are necessary to keep schools open.
“I know it’s tough, but a strike does not solve problems. One does not strike against a virus,” the education minister, Mr Blanquer, told BFM TV.
The strike comes at a politically awkward time for French President Emmanuel Macron, who is expected to seek a second term in an April election.
His rivals have capitalised on the strike to criticise Mr Macron.
“I feel the enormous pain both of the school community and especially of parents,” conservative candidate Valerie Pecresse told French TV.