It’s a sobering take from CNN on the situation in French schools, which have mostly stayed open throughout the entirety of the pandemic: “France kept classrooms open ‘at all costs.’ At a school where 20 pupils lost loved ones, some say the price was too high.”
There’s a key inference any individual would make reading that headline: That in spite of epidemiological evidence that linked the deaths of “loved ones” to exposure to COVID from the classrooms at a school in a Paris suburb, school officials kept classrooms open and students learning. The headline suggests there was evidence of community transmission linked to schools, but officials were willing to pay the “costs.”
Saskya Vandoorne’s account published Tuesday opens with a heart-wrenching anecdote: “Grace was full of hope as she entered the final stretch of high school. The 16-year-old was two years away from graduating, and she wanted to make her parents proud — especially her father. ”
“‘I told him I loved him, and I would always do my best,’ Grace said.
“This would be the last promise she ever made to her father, as he lay intubated in an ICU unit for Covid-19 patients. He died the next day, on April 9 of last year, at the peak of the first wave in France. ”
The reader, thusly devastated, reads about how Grace “dreaded going back to school in Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb northeast of Paris that was hit hard by the pandemic, last September.”
“She worried the other students would treat her differently, and was surprised when one of her classmates confided in her that she too had lost her father to Covid-19,” Vandoorne wrote.
“In all, at least 20 students from her high school, Eugene Delacroix, in nearby Drancy, lost a relative to the virus in 2020, according to the town hall.”
This is now seven paragraphs into the piece. We’ve been crushed by the emotional impact of Grace’s story and taken somewhat aback by the numbers that 20 students lost relatives to COVID. There’s another fact that still needs to be addressed, and there’s a reason it remains unstated until eight paragraphs down:
“Nothing suggests these deaths were caused by infections at the school.”
Thanks for coming, everyone. It’s not even there wasn’t proof the infections were caused by classes being held at Eugene Delacroix. “Nothing” even “suggests” that schools were the problem.
Vandoorne, instead, hangs the justification of the headline on the fact “CNN has spoken with students at Eugene Delacroix who say they share a common burden: The fear of bringing Covid-19 home and infecting a loved one. ”
Except the story is hardly that, either. Except for four short paragraphs later in the piece where Vandoorne briefly wrote about the experiences of Grace and another student at the school, Maëlle Benzimera, the piece is mostly a one-sided look at France’s decision to keep classrooms open and the purported costs of the decision.
The benefits get short shrift. There’s a quote from French President Emmanuel Macron from May of 2020 — “We need the children to go back to class because there’s a danger they’ll be left behind, learning gaps will appear and educational inequalities are exacerbated.” And a brief explanation of France’s enviable record of only having to close schools for 10 weeks. (By way of comparison, the U.K. closed them for 27 weeks, Germany for 28 and Italy for 35, according to CNN.)
Ah, but at what cost? The protocols stated students over 11 had to wear masks, classrooms were to ventilated and social distancing observed. But “[n]ot all schools were able to respect the safety protocols, especially those in poor neighborhoods,” Vandoorne observed.
Here we briefly return to Eugene Delacroix — if not to dwell on the students, then the teachers instead.
“Colleen Brown, who teaches English at Eugene Delacroix to classrooms packed with 30 children, said the restrictions were impossible to implement at the start of the school year,” Vandoorne wrote. “Windows wouldn’t open, she said, some children removed their masks, they lacked cleaning staff and there was hardly any testing for the virus. ”
“‘France may be exceptional in that they’ve kept the schools open at all costs, but they have not been exceptional in funding the schools so that they can do that safely,'” Brown said.
“Despite Brown’s pleas and daily fear of going into the building, she said little was done in terms of protective measures; complaints she and other teachers eventually made to school officials in January fell on deaf ears.”
Further down, we get back to the students paying the incredible cost. (Remember them?) According to Vandoorne, Grace said she wasn’t “worried about catching it, but what if we caught it and then brought it home and passed it on to a cousin or nephew? You’d feel terrible even though it would not be your fault.”
“I know that if I catch the virus, I will be a little bit sick, but I won’t be sick enough to go to the hospital. Whereas if my parents or grandparents have the virus, I know that they could die or could go to the hospital,” Benzimera said, according to Vandoorne. “I’ve been really scared since September.”
To be fair, the article notes that France has been faced with a soaring infection rate from a highly contagious variant of COVID-19 that was first reported in the U.K. And that did affect the government’s decision on schools.
Macron ordered schools closed because of the country’s COVID infection rate starting the first week of the month, according to CNBC. They were scheduled to close for spring holiday April 11 to April 25 anyway.
And, Vandoorne writes, “Some epidemiologists and scientists have questioned the government’s policy of keeping schools open as transmission rates increased.”
However, that still doesn’t excuse the propagandistic nature of the piece.
There are 2,400 students at Eugene Delacroix, so CNN’s slant is entirely anecdotal, not scientific. Quoting two students hesitant about re-opening the schools in the midst of COVID-19 isn’t convincing as anything but confirmation bias.
That fits neatly with the piece itself, however, which offers no substantive scientific evidence that schools being open played any part in the high rate of infection in Seine-Saint-Denis — the hard-hit French department that Eugene Delacroix is in — or in France in general, or anywhere in the world, for that matter.
It also ignores any of the scientific evidence that its role was limited. In addition to studies from around the world that have shown the risk of transmission via schools is minimal when weighed against the cost of shutting down in-person education.
In an essay published by The Wall Street Journal in August, Avik Roy, president of the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and advocate of keeping schools open, wrote that a June 2020 study of French primary schools found “that children aged between 6 and 11 are generally infected in a family environment rather than at school.”
“Notably, the study was conducted in Crépy-en-Valois, a town north of Paris that had seen an outbreak originating with two high-school teachers that spread to adolescent students,” Roy wrote.
Furthermore, as US News and World Report noted in March, the French decision to keep schools open could have “helped prevent many of the inequalities experienced by working parents and particularly mothers in other countries, some of whom have been forced to choose between their careers and caring for their kids.”
CNN’s report tackles none of this, marrying a weighted overview of French school lockdown policy with a gut-punch appeal to emotion.
It’s hollow — and nowhere so much as the headline, which implicitly promises to prove 20 students lost relatives to COVID that could plausibly be linked to keeping schools open, only for the writer to debunk this by pointing out, reluctantly, there wasn’t a shred of evidence behind that tacit assertion.
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