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Lockdown learning: French school closures will have 'a catastrophic effect on an entire generation'

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Lockdown learning: French school closures will have 'a catastrophic effect on an entire generation'
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Coronavirus containment measures across Europe have closed schools and forced millions of children to follow their lessons from home.

Experts in France now fear the crisis will significantly worsen social inequalities over the long run, because of the impact it will have on household incomes and education.

"It’s going to be catastrophic. It will affect an entire generation," Elise Boscherel, who teaches high school students in a Paris suburb in Seine-Saint-Denis, told Euronews.

Nevertheless, many parents, mayors and teachers have questioned the French government's decision to reopen schools starting on May 11, when other European countries are keeping schools closed even as they phase out lockdown restrictions.

This week Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said reopening schools was an "educational, social, and republican priority". He said keeping children at home for months on end could lead to a spike in school dropouts and turn into a "time bomb".

Six children and no computer

Inside the towering housing projects that dot the suburbs of Paris, social inequality has real-world consequences.

Euronews met with residents of Villeneuve-la-Garenne, where violent clashes between local youth and police erupted last month, to find out how they were coping with confinement measures.

Carmen works as a hospital cleaner and has six children. Throughout the country’s eight-week lockdown, their lessons went online.

"I spend more time at work than at home. So I left my kids in the hands of 'online' teachers to follow their school activities," she said.

But the family doesn’t own any computer. Myriam, the youngest child, explained that she followed her lessons on her phone.

For her brother Bemba, it wasn’t so simple. His phone broke down, and the tablet the school lent him didn’t connect. He said he had no idea how he would be able to catch up when he returns to school.

"The first difficulty (students have faced) is this digital gap that we talk about a lot. I knew it existed, but I didn’t know it was this bad," Boscherel, the teacher, said.

"Many of my students send me their homework by taking a picture of the work, which means they either don’t have a computer, or there’s only one computer in the house. And since there are other brothers and sisters, and the parents sometimes need to use it for work, it’s complicated.”

Children in the banlieues typically don’t have their own bedroom and live in overcrowded apartments, which can make learning conditions very challenging, she added.

"I don’t dare to do online courses through video conference because I don’t want students to feel judged."

High illiteracy and school dropout rates

Education was already a challenge in the banlieues before the coronavirus crisis hit.

Government statistics show that more than a quarter of those who grow up in France’s poorest housing projects (known as "sensitive urban zones") drop out of school without any diploma.

At least 15 per cent are illiterate – more than double the rate across the rest of the country.

Many now fear the educational hiatus caused by the pandemic could further widen the gap.

Karim Bey, a father and former teacher, complained that not enough had been done to help parents homeschool their children throughout the lockdown.

"They helped people who had trouble affording food," he noted, referring to volunteers who have been distributing meals to help struggling families cope with sometimes dramatic drops in income.

"It’s good to feed the body, but I think feeding the mind was overlooked. It would have been good to see volunteers come to these neighbourhoods and offer to help."

Watch Anelise's report in the video player above.