French President Emmanuel Macron school
French President Emmanuel Macron hugs a child during a visit at Bouge primary school in Malpasse district of Marseille September 2, 2021 as millions of children in France go back to school Thursday for the new academic year, wearing masks as part of rules aimed at slowing down the spreading of the coronavirus. Image Credit: Reuters

Paris: Twelve million French children returned to school on Thursday, wearing facemasks, using sanitizer as they arrived and standing distanced from each other in schoolyards under strict rules aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.

President Emmanuel Macron, who visited a school in the southern port city of Marseille, urged pupils to respect the regulations, saying in a Twitter video that the government was “doing what is necessary to make ‘back to school’ as normal as possible”.

But that has still meant significant changes for the likes of Matthieu Seguin, deputy director of the Rodin high school in central Paris.

“This is very different from usual,” he said, spelling out safety measures that also include air purifiers in classrooms and spare masks for any pupils that had forgotten theirs.

With inoculations now available to children from age 12, and pupils encouraged to get their shots, Seguin said his school might become a vaccination centre.

Macron said on Twitter that three of five teenagers had already received shots, and 11-year-old Rodin pupil Louise - who admitted to being a bit nervous for her first day at a big school - said she couldn’t wait to get hers too.

“I really want to get vaccinated,” she said.

For others, the focus was different: “I’m really happy because I will discover high school and be back with my buddies,” 11-year-old Eli said.

In Marseille, Macron chatted with children in a classroom, with one reported to have asked him if nasal swabs for COVID-19 go all the way into the brain, and another how much he earns.

France, where the daily average COVID-19 contagion rate has slowed, is battling a fourth wave of the pandemic, and the government aims to administer a third vaccine shot to some 18 million people by early 2022, a health ministry official said on Tuesday.