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On March 12th 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron informed teachers and students that schools would close their doors in an attempt to curb the spread of COVID-19. At the time, 61 people had died as a result of coronavirus in France. Today, only days after France reached the bleak milestone of 100,000 deaths, schools are closed again. Yet, this came after months of the French strategy to keep schools open 'at all costs.'

 

Unlike other European countries or the United States, French schools maintained in-person learning for the majority of the year and will return to classrooms next week. This decision was hotly contested both inside of France and outside of the country. The government often pointed to the difficulties of online learning, particularly for schools in economically disadvantaged communities where students were more likely to experience obstacles such as connection problems or the lack of an internet enabled device to study with.

And so - at the start of the 2020 academic year, French schools reopened at full capacity and stayed that way until the third wave hit, leading the country to close schools for a three week spring holiday.

Having worked as an English Teacher at Collège Victor Hugo, I decided to return to ask students and teachers what a year of in-person COVID-learning has been like for them. The middle school is located in the Seine St. Denis suburb of Paris, which is home to a large immigrant population and has been hard-hit by COVID-19. In choosing to keep schools open, the French government claimed to be prioritizing students in districts like Seine-St-Denis, though students and staff may hold differing perspectives on this.

Through photos and interview testimony taken on March 30th, 2021, this project will explore schooling during the pandemic.

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The exterior of Collège Victor Hugo, located in Noisy-le-Grand

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The Entrance

 

When entering Collège Victor Hugo, signs telling students to respect one meter of distance and to keep masks on at all times can be found on almost every wall, door, or column.

The Library

 

A student studies alone, which is now marked off to enforce social distancing measures.

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The Cafeteria

 

Students now eat while separated by plexiglass to protect against the spread of the virus.

The Classroom

 

Students listen on as Language Assistant Joy Gursky writes on the board, giving a lesson on self-care. 

Students and staff keep their masks on at all times.

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Caroline, Troisième

(9th grade)

Caroline was happy to have school remain open. She said she struggled with online school and did not enjoy working on a computer all day.

 

"I like the mask," she said, adding that wearing it makes her feel more comfortable.

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Diana, Troisième (9th grade)

"[Going to school this past year] was really strange and really annoying. I would listen to the news to know what we should do and how we should act. At first we could understand things, but at a certain point we couldn't anymore"

Diana described this year as "stressful." She found online learning during the first lockdown to be manageable, but was often confused by the fluctuating regulations throughout the year of in-person schooling.

"When they talk about it [coronavirus], they don't say much about us. I don't know if they care about us because if they did I think the school would be locked"

For Diana, the answer was clear: the schools ought to be closed. Earlier this year, one of their teachers became sick with coronavirus, which was difficult for students and staff alike. Trying to look on the bright side, she said that she looks forward to a vaccinated future and is excited about being able to see her classmates' faces again.

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Reporting and Photography by Genevieve Mansfield.

Written parental permission obtained for photos

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