Old Enough To Wear Masks, Young Enough To Stay In School

Across France, children aged 11 and older must wear masks. Not just in closed public spaces, but also on their way to school (in Paris, masks are obligatory outdoors) and in the classroom. During the first lockdown, all educational institutions were closed from the preschool to university level. Students and teachers everywhere took to their screens beginning in March, and until the end of the year in July. So, when in September students gathered in front of their school buildings for the first time since the spring, it was quite a sight. Suddenly, hundreds and thousands of masked children were reunited—even if, somewhat anonymously.

How much did new protocol implemented in the first lockdown—and later, masks in the second—change the educational experience? During the latter, which ran from October 28th to the end of the school semester, students were allowed to continue going to school (with the exception of university students). CultureXchange spoke to a 14-year-old student on the matter. He graduated from middle school last summer. His teachers congratulated him from a safe distance behind their iPad screens. In September, he began high school in a new district of Paris. He has asked to remain anonymous.

CultureXchange: What was it like having to ‘go to’ school in your own home during the first lockdown?

AR: It didn’t feel very serious. I couldn’t take it seriously. I was at home and unconsciously I knew I could do anything I wanted to. There weren’t any rules. We had iPads so we managed to maintain classes with our teachers. But, the classes weren’t that good. Sometimes we couldn’t even see our teachers because of the bad Internet connection. And, honestly, I would find myself often distracted: I would play Fortnight on my phone during class (under the table).

CultureXchange: Can you explain your online classroom experience?

AR: We used GoToMeeting. It’s an app. It worked pretty well, but you could only have a certain number of cameras on at the same time. Maybe three-quarters of the class, maybe even less sometimes. Even when I did want to connect my camera, I couldn’t because there were too many students. I would have to explain this to my teacher in the chat box. Homework and other documents were on Google Classroom, but this was the same as before the pandemic. We had to turn in our homework via email and take multiple choice exams on Google Forms.

CultureXchange: What do you mean by ‘even when’ you wanted to?

AR: I would fake microphone and camera problems so I didn’t have to participate. Sometimes it was because I hadn’t learned the lesson. I was a bit ashamed of giving a wrong answer. Plus, the teachers weren’t very nice. I mean, they knew we weren’t studying as much, and they would call us out for it ‘in front’ of the whole class. 

CultureXchange: What about when you did turn your camera on?

AR: Well, I never really combed my hair and I was usually in my pajamas, so it was a bit awkward. But, I was at home so … Plus we had a school uniform and I wasn’t going to put that on. I preferred staying in my pajamas. Other students didn’t wear their uniforms of course. They were usually in street clothes. I never saw anyone in pajamas. I am sure there were others who, like me, wore them; but then, their cameras weren’t on. 

CultureXchange: How did the teachers present themselves?

AR: They looked tired, but I guess they kept up a poker face. I didn’t really notice a change in their attitude. They managed to teach normally, sort of. We didn’t have any breaks during class. Our schedule didn’t really change from before. Each class was 55 minutes long. And even before the pandemic, we didn’t have to leave the classroom—the teachers moved around. This was the same online. Sometimes, to take some time away from the class we would tell the teacher that their screen wasn’t working so that they would have to disconnect and log back in.

CultureXchange: How did you feel when it was announced that a continuous assessment of your school year would replace the ‘Brevet des Collèges’?

AR: Because I already had pretty good grades, I knew that I was going to get the diploma—and with high honors. It was a relief because I wasn’t going to have to study for the in-school exams. A couple weeks before the announcement, our teachers had warned us to start studying; at that point we thought we were going to be allowed to return to school. In the end, we weren’t. Everyone was relieved and overjoyed.

CultureXchange: This was your first year of secondary education, in a new school. How were you able to make friends? Was it more difficult to meet and get to know people behind their masks?

AR: I’m in a pretty good class. I mean everyone is super nice. We say high to each other every morning; we give high fives to literally every single person in the class. Eventually, we asked one another to take off the masks, so that we could see each other. It just happened naturally. In one class, the teacher asked us one-by-one to go to the front of the class and take our mask off.  

CultureXchange: Do you feel the teaching/learning was different because of masks and limited class size?

AR: Limited class size?! There are 37 people in my class and the room is pretty small, in comparison. Nothing really changed. The teacher is at the front, no one else is really talking, so you can hear them pretty well even with the mask. You can still make out by the tone of their voice their different expressions. So, not seeing their faces isn’t too bothersome. 

CultureXchange: What was it like going to school during the second lockdown?

AR: It wasn’t that different. We had a paper that said we were going to school. No police ever stopped me to check it.

CultureXchange: Did you observe differences in the metro/on the streets in the mornings?

AR: Yeah, in general there were less people. I take the metro around 7AM. Honestly, there were probably the same amount of people at that time; a lot of blue collar workers. Though sometimes, on line 13, I was able to sit down. That was nice. 

CultureXchange: What do you miss the most from the time before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic?

AR: I guess interactions with other people felt more natural before. I am not sure how to explain it, but … Oh, and the basketball courts were open before. I miss going to play.

CultureXchange: Do you feel optimistic about being able to return to normalcy in school during your second semester?

AR: Frankly, yes. I do. 

CultureXchange: What would it be like if all schooling occurred online? Or in school, but always masked?

AR: I think their would be strikes. I’m not kidding. I think people would just get really tired of it and revolt.

As interviewed by Camille Kemache

Photo JEFF PACHOUD / AFP

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