Hackers, glitches mar France’s mass return to online school

A girl waves goodbye to her mother as she enters her school in Strasbourg, eastern France. Children, parents and teachers are battling with connection problems across France after an abrupt nationwide switch to online learning saturated networks and embarrassed the government. Paris prosecutors opened an investigation into possible hacking into key systems, the prosecutor’s office said. — AP

PARIS: French children, parents and teachers are battling with Internet connection problems across the country after an abrupt nationwide switch to online learning saturated networks and embarrassed the government.

Paris prosecutors opened an investigation Wednesday into possible hacking into key systems, and the government’s cybersecurity agency is also investigating. Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer announced cyberattacks on a state distance-learning network and blamed overwhelmed private networks and servers for other glitches.

But frustrated parents and teachers are blaming bad planning, too.

“They didn’t think ahead,” said middle-school history and geography teacher Maela Vercoustre, who hasn’t been able to convene a full-size class for two days. “I hope tomorrow will be better.”

After more than seven months of in-person class, the switch on April 6 to all-online learning for all of France’s 12 million pupils was plagued with problems. Some were solved by April 7, but the Education Ministry announced a second day of cyberattacks on the state-run distance learning network, and said multiple regions were still suffering erratic and slow connections.

For Esther Baumad of Open Digital Education, a leading online teaching platform, the reason was simple: “There were too many people connected at the same time,” she told broadcaster France-Info.

Parents shared advice on class WhatsApp chats and vented on social networks. Teachers muddled through with smaller-than-usual classes because some children couldn’t log on, or had to cancel classes altogether.

“I had to reload, reload, reload," Vercoustre said, while pupils lucky enough to connect “waited, waited, waited” in the online waiting room. Then three parents called during class to say their kids were locked out of the system. Then colleagues complained, too.

“Everyone is getting annoyed," she told The Associated Press. “We too are sick of this.”

President Emmanuel Macron acknowledged some “difficulties, some incidents”. While taking part in an online history and geography class for 14-year-olds in southern France on Tuesday, he said, “I know it’s not easy."

Sitting at his computer in the presidential palace, Macron watched a lesson on World War II, and thanked the students, teachers and families for adapting to the situation.

His government sent all children back to school full-time in September to reduce learning gaps exposed during virus lockdowns last spring, and to allow parents to get back to work. As a result, most French schools did not undertake major changes to adapt to remote learning like many did in the US, where a new survey released Wednesday by the Biden administration found just 34% of students nationwide were learning full-time in the classroom.

After months of insisting that French schools wouldn’t close again, the French government was forced to backtrack last week amid a new virus surge fuelled by a more contagious variant first identified in Britain. Macron ordered schools and non-essential businesses to shut nationwide and imposed new travel restrictions for four weeks.

France’s already stretched hospitals are struggling with the numbers of new virus patients. The country has reported among the highest number of virus-related deaths in the world, at 97,273.

Meanwhile, France is trying to speed up vaccinations after a slow start. Seven military hospitals started vaccinating civilians this week and a major vaccination center opened at the national sports stadium north of Paris. – AP

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