What social distancing? French students complain of packed lectures

Caroline Pailliez and Eric Gaillard, Reuters

Posted at Sep 30 2020 09:21 PM

People wearing protective face masks walk in a busy street in Paris as France reinforces mask-wearing in public places as part of efforts to curb a resurgence of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) across France, September 18, 2020. Gonzalo Fuentes, Reuters/File Photo

NICE, France - Students arriving for the new university term in the French city of Nice said they found themselves crammed into lecture theatres with some people even sitting on the steps, despite a heightened alert in the city for the spread of COVID-19.

"The lecture hall was full. We were all stuck together," Joanna Gomes, a 22-year-old psychology student, said, describing a gathering organised by university staff on the first day of term.

She said she had health problems which put her in a COVID-19 risk group. "I'm scared," she said. "It could be dangerous for me."

The full lecture theatres show the challenges of returning to normal life after the summer break at a time of global pandemic. In France, as in many parts of Europe, COVID-19 rates have surged again in September.

Schools and universities are the second biggest source of virus clusters, after workplaces, according to French public health authorities.

At Nice's Universite de Cote d'Azur, 30 students and 10 staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since the start of term on Sept. 7, according to university president Jeanick Brisswalter.

He said the university followed the government's COVID safety guidelines, including requiring students to wear masks. Once it became clear lecture theatres were full to capacity, the university responded by asking students to come in on alternate weeks, he said.

Brisswalter said students could catch COVID-19 outside university premises too, and that one cluster had been traced to a student party.

Four students at the university who spoke to Reuters described sitting elbow-to-elbow in lecture theatres at the start of term, with no vacant seats to ensure social distancing. Two of them said some students were sitting on the stairs.

The issue is not confined to Nice. Students posted on Twitter video and photos from universities around the country of packed lecture halls with people standing in the aisles, and tightly-packed crowds queuing on staircases and in corridors.