FRANCE has been hailed for its heroic resistance to lockdown fever, rejecting a third lockdown, widely declining the vaccine and, perhaps most ‘admirably’, keeping schools open. Admirable indeed to provide children with the education that they are entitled to, when every other facet of their lives is under cruel draconian restriction. Yet my experience of working in a French collège (the English equivalent of years 7 to 10) since September has been far from encouraging concerning the government’s psychological and emotional treatment of young people, all amidst a period riddled with uncertainty.
It starts with the masks. Row upon row of youthful faces, engulfed by the masks that they are obliged to wear from 8am to 4 or 5pm, minus the French two-hour lunch break in which they mostly return home. I have seen 6èmes (year 7s) in tears with headaches from the prolonged muzzling and the hours spent trying to read, write and socialise within the confines of their masks. ‘Can we see your face before you leave?’ they plead at the end of every lesson. I show the 5èmes a picture of me (mouth and all) and they gasp at the sight of such explicit content (working with teenagers for six months has taught me not to take anything too personally). Smiling animatedly with my eyes is the only means of encouraging students who crave verification beyond the robotic wall of my masked face. In a recent vocabulary lesson, they describe themselves as wearing ‘blue jeans, a grey jumper and a blue mask’. My heart breaks for this innocent manifestation of a truly bleak reality.
Next is the ‘cleansing’: the psychological slander of essentially labelling the students as ‘dirty’. It’s January 4, 8am, minus 1 deg C. As part of la protocole sanitaire renforcé, the window is flung open at the start of each class for five minutes. As the students are ordered to take off their scarves and jackets while freezing air floods in, I am guiltily grateful for my status as ‘prof’ and consequent scarf licence. This procedure follows the ‘disinfection’ of the students upon entering the classroom – yes, I stand at the door spraying them each with hand sanitiser that is bought in bulk and smells of cooking fat. No sharing pencils, no coming up to the board, no moving around the classroom – not to mention the fact that they are stuck in the same room all day (another rule of la protocole sanitaire renforcé). Lord help the teacher who gets them for the graveyard shift of 4pm after a day of rattling around in their ‘safe’, ‘Covid-secure’ ‘pen’ (no PE, obviously).
Walking home, I’m surrounded by children tearing their masks from their faces, sharing smiles and friendship. They have an hour or two before the 6pm curfew sets in and they are ordered back to their homes. Although schools in France haven’t shut since the first confinement in March 2020, I assume that very few of the students in my school (in a particularly poor zone prioritaire) have access to a computer, tablet or even internet network (as much as their knowledge of Prison Break suggests otherwise). For physical schooling to be halted again would be nothing short of a disaster for not only their academic development, but in many cases their wellbeing. In this vein, when the French government banned certain homemade masks this week, my immediate thought was for the families who will undoubtedly struggle to fund new surgical masks each day. Unfortunately, the government’s track record surrounding mask politics leaves much to be desired, with the frankly laughable ruling that masks are to be worn from the moment you leave your home going painfully unchallenged. This, paired with the overriding discouragement of basic humanising qualities, leads me to fear for the trajectory of this generation – its values, social and emotional cues, and general attitudes towards governance, freedom and democracy.
So yes, France has succeeded in many ways in which the UK and other European countries have failed. School is a respite for these adolescents, a mental, social and emotional stimulation that cannot be undervalued. Yet, as is the case across much of Europe, I see the toll that this ‘pandemic’ and moreover its management is taking on this generation. It is no coincidence that the SEGPA (special needs education) groups across the collège have consistently grown since September, and this is merely a material manifestation of the evil at work on so many levels. Much harder to define are the tiny psychological, emotional developments which are all so essential to each stage of a teenager’s growth, disregarded at the hands of our leaders.