MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
More than 50 million children here in the U.S. will be out of school for the remainder of the academic year due to the coronavirus. In Europe, however, a different story. This coming Monday, France is set to join a small number of European countries attempting a partial reopening of schools. This week, French president Emmanuel Macron visited a primary school northwest of Paris that has remained open for the children of essential health workers.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking French).
PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: (Speaking French).
MACRON: (Speaking French).
KELLY: That little girl there telling the president her mother works as a nurse in a coronavirus unit. Well, Macron's education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, was there at the school as well. He is overseeing the reopening of schools next week, and he joins us via Skype now from Paris. Bonjour. Bienvenue.
JEAN-MICHEL BLANQUER: Thank you very much.
KELLY: So that visit to the school, just watching the television footage of it, was, to me, a fascinating window of what schools are going to look like in France. It shows kids' desks at least 6 feet apart. The teacher was wearing a mask. Are you confident this can be replicated across France by Monday?
BLANQUER: Yes, it will - by Tuesday in reality, because on Monday, it will be the teachers, and then during the rest of the week, the children are going to come. Of course, it will be progressively, so it's not all the children that are coming together. We decided to start with primary school, but, of course, we want the other to come to school in May and June, too.
KELLY: This is voluntary, I gather. No student is going to be forced to return to school. If they do come back, class size is going to be limited to 15. Do you think they will come? Do you think you will have 15 students in classrooms come next week?
BLANQUER: Yes, because we are asking the parents during the last weeks, who are going to come and who are not going to come. So we know that we are going to start with 15 or 20% of the students, and then the other ones are going to come. It's a question of trust. I think that when those who do not come will see that things are going well with those who come, they will be convinced. Those who will stay in their houses, we'll have a distance learning system working for them.
KELLY: You must be hearing from parents who are worried, who are going to need some persuasion to think that this is the best thing for their child.
BLANQUER: I think that we are going to convince everybody, first, because we - there will be very good activities, second, because we give guarantees in terms of health rules, third, because we already have experience of that. As you mentioned, we were in a school which, during the last two months, was receiving the children of the people working in the hospital. In this school, for example, no one was ill. The teachers and the children - no one was ill.
KELLY: If reopening schools is the right plan, why do so many local officials oppose it? I'm asking because, as you know, more than 300 mayors have written an open letter urging President Macron and you to delay this.
BLANQUER: Know that this is a - there is some political debate, and it's normal to have this kind of expression. In reality, more than 90% of schools and 90% of the local authorities in charge of opening the schools are going to open.
KELLY: But they're saying that - these 300 mayors who have written say the timetable is unrealistic, that they can't get their schools and the staff ready in time to do this safely.
BLANQUER: It was difficult because we have very strong rules. But they managed to do it, and that's why now, we are able to say that 90% of the schools are going to open next week.
KELLY: I wonder how much weight have you given to warnings coming out from health officials, epidemiologists warning that opening schools could lead to a second wave of the virus. Are you going to have widespread testing in schools to make sure that this does not become the case?
BLANQUER: Yes. We are - of course we are very cautious about that. That's why we have not reopened everything at the same time. Depending on the evolution of the epidemic and at the end of the month, we will see what we do. Of course, we don't want a second wave. That's why we do things very progressively. We don't receive all the children at the same times. But we have also studies that show that it can be worse for the health of the children who do not go to school.
KELLY: Last thing, which is just to ask how you are preparing staff and teachers because this has been, obviously, a traumatic experience for everyone living through the pandemic. Are teachers prepared to talk about what we're all going through? What's the message going to be to kids about staying safe and getting through this?
BLANQUER: What you say is a very important dimension of the situation for France and I think for all the countries. That's why we have a - we pay a lot of attention to the psychological questions. People need to speak and to exchange about what they have lived. Some people have lost someone or very bad experiences of those two months. That's why we have some days of preparation with the teachers, and that's why we are going to have our psychologists in the schools to speak with adults and with children during those days.
KELLY: That is Jean-Michel Blanquer. He is France's minister of national education. Thank you very much for your time. Merci beaucoup.
BLANQUER: Thank you very much. Merci beaucoup.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.