Here in France, my kids went back to school in May and June. They are on summer break now, but schools are currently planning to fully open in September (technically, I think the first day back is August 31st).
Friends have asked what it’s like having kids back in school — what are the safety precautions? — so I thought I’d walk you through what it has been like here to have the country slowly and carefully reopen.
Here’s what the French pandemic response looked like from my perspective. In early March, right after I got back from Alt Summit, there was talk about the country shutting down, but it hadn’t happened yet, and the kids were still in school.
By Mid-March, President Macron closed ALL schools throughout the country simultaneously, and the country shutdown in earnest. Everything but essential shops were shuttered and the streets of our town were absolutely empty. I didn’t see people walking. I rarely saw cars. It was quiet as can be. Grocery shopping happened rarely, and had strict guidelines — only one person per family (you couldn’t bring your spouse or the kids). You had to enter and exit on specific paths. There were plexi-glass checkout barriers for the workers. School transitioned to online, but didn’t take up a big portion of the day.
People continued to be paid for working at home, or had access to government relief funds in order to float their businesses until they could reopen. There was no talk of evictions or not being able to pay rent. No utilities were shut off. Nothing like that.
This continued for two months. Everything was closed. At the one month point, a couple of restaurants reopened for takeout only. No funerals. No travel. No driving longer than a few miles. No handshakes, hugs, or cheek kisses. No hanging out with neighbors on their lawn — even at six feet apart.
Mid-May, things started to slowly and carefully reopen. And all of it was at the direction of the government. The country was labeled with green zones or orange zones or yellow zones, depending on the risk factors of that area for covid-19 to spread, and green zones opened first. Normandy (where we live) was a green zone, which means it was considered low-risk.
Elementary kids went back to school, but with modifications. Each class was split in half and would only attend half the time. So Flora June and half of her class attended school on Monday & Thursday, and the other half attended on Tuesday & Friday. (There is no school on Wednesday for elementary age kids, even when there’s no pandemic.)
All adults at the school had to wear masks 100% of the time. The children were not asked to wear masks, though they could if they wanted to. Any child showing even the smallest signs of sickness was asked to stay home. And you didn’t have to send your kids if you didn’t want to (like maybe you have immuno-compromised members of your household). If you didn’t feel safe attending in person, you could still participate via online school.
The desks were spread far apart, hand-washing was required at several points throughtout the day,. At recess, the kids could only play games where there was no touching and the kids stayed 6 feet apart — so no tag. And the cafeteria process was streamlined so that the kids could avoid touching things. They would come in and sit — every other chair — and the food was brought on a rolling cart and the kids chose what they wanted and it was placed in front of them. No sharing food.
Three weeks after the elementary schools children returned, middle school students and high school students had the option of returning, or continuing with online classes. The plan was that if the whole class wanted to return, they would be split in half and each group would go every other week. But for Oscar and Betty’s classes, only about half the kids wanted to return, so they could go every week.
For these older kids, masks were required and they were each given 4 white cotton masks that are washable and reusable.
Three weeks after that, President Macron announced that all students could attend at the same time for the last week of school. The same masks and handwashing requirements, but they didn’t need to split the classes anymore.
In early June the stores and banks and businesses started to reopen as well. Masks were required to enter, and shops with small square footage could only allow in a couple of people at a time. Stores put vinyl guidelines on the floor in front of registers to keep people properly spaced. And they put vinyl guidelines outside the doors too, so that if people needed to line up and wait their turn to shop, they would be properly spaced too. All stores provided hand sanitizer at the entrance and asked all customers to use it when coming inside. Most shops created plexiglass barriers at the registers to protect their employees. Citizens were still asked to limit their shopping and stay home as much as possible. All of these precautions are still in place and active.
Mid-June, our church reopened as well. We have a very small congregation, so it was possible for us. But it’s very modified. We let our church leaders know if we’ll be there ahead of time, so they can plan for us. Masks are required, and if you forget yours, they have a stack of the blue disposable masks at the door. When we arrive, there’s no chitchat or hanging out. We follow a specific path to our chairs — which are assigned and have our name on them. The chairs are spread out so no two families are close together. The meeting lasts 45 minutes, and then each family is dismissed one at a time and asked to go directly to their cars, no hanging out afterwards. There are special precautions for taking the sacrament too.
As the school year finished, the country reopened for travel within France’s borders, and at the beginning of July, travel within EU countries opened.
All of the reopening so far has happened in 2-3 week segments, so officials can track if there’s a new outbreak with each reopening change. But so far, so good.
Precautions are still in place. Restaurants have reopened but can not take big groups — I believe the max reservation is 10 people, and that’s only if the restaurant has adequate square footage. Tables at restaurants have to be spread out and they can’t take as many customers. Pretty much every store requires masks, as well as any National Monuments. Some stores are by appointment only. Plexiglass barriers at checkout points are the norm. There is still no shaking hands, or cheek kissing, or hugging. There are still no large gatherings. The community pool reopened, but only for laps, and you have to reserve one of the limited spots. Extra-curricular options for kids haven’t really restarted at all.
Even with all these safety precautions, as we traveled last week, it felt pretty normal. The biggest difference is the masks. When people are outside with plenty of space, the masks come off, but anytime there are a lot of people together — like the boat tour we took — masks are required. And I haven’t seen anyone complain or hesitate about the masks. Sometimes you’ll see someone enter a store without a mask and a worker will let them know one is required, and the customer will quickly say something like: Oops! I forgot. Sorry about that. And then pull a mask from their pocket.
I do think mask-wearing has eased up a bit here in outside spaces this month. But again, reopening has been so slow and careful, without signs of new outbreaks, and I think it’s understandable that people are feeling more confident to go without.
But I also know that if there’s even a tiny re-emergence of the virus, the people here won’t hesitate to get strict again. The French are lucky — they aren’t worried about how they’ll pay their bills, because they have vast and deep social safety nets.
I’m sure you’ve seen this chart of America compared to the EU. It is painful to watch covid-19 still raging in much of the U.S.. I’m sick about it and worried for my children, Maude and Ralph, who live there. If they get sick, can I go to the U.S. and take care of them? And if I do, will I be able to return to France when they are better?
I’m also heartsick for all the parents who are still trying to work without school, childcare, or summer camps. For those couple of weeks in June where all our kids were in school again? Holy cow, it makes SUCH A DIFFERENCE for how efficient and productive our work days were. And I’m sure I would be incredibly discouraged if I thought our kids weren’t going back in the fall. (Of course, if there’s a second wave, they won’t be.)
Trying to work at home and parent at the same time is so dang hard. And being asked to come into a store or office for work, when there are no childcare options available, is an impossible situation.
I’m especially frustrated for those people in the U.S. who kept a strict quarantine in March and April and May. If the whole country had done that, and carefully managed a nationwide reopening, the U.S. would be experiencing what the EU is experiencing: a modified, open, and covid-free summer.
But because shutdown orders and reopening orders have happened haphazardly around the U.S., and with different levels of strictness, the virus has only been contained in limited areas, and it feels like people will need to quarantine for a long time still. It’s infuriating to watch, and much more infuriating for the people living through it.
I also keep thinking about the horrible guidance we were all given in March about masks. I know some of it was based on not knowing enough about the virus and how it spreads, but it has also been reported that some of the advice was knowingly bad. And it has caused such huge problems. I remember specifically being told masks weren’t very effective, and that people wearing masks are more likely to touch their faces, and spread the virus that way. I was also told to save all masks for healthcare workers — an action that felt good to support. And I passed along all of that bad advice!
Instead, the experts and officials could have told us: Masks are essential. Save medical-grade masks for healthcare workers whenever possible. And if you have to go out, be sure to make at least a makeshift mask and wear it. They could have told us masks were important and that creating a huge mask supply was important, and Americans (who LOVE to make things) would have been all over that. Instead, this basic and effective safety tool has been politicized.
It’s especially infuriating because we can see now that in cities and countries where mask-wearing is expected and commonplace (like NYC), the virus seems to be under control.
What is all this like where you live? Did your community have a strict lockdown or was it more casual? What are infection rates like in your city or town? Are people still working at home a lot? What about school? Do you think your schools will reopen in the fall? If they do, will you be sending your kids? And do you have any thoughts on masks?
P.S. — The Circus of Covid Testing.