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An otherwise normal return to classes, or la rentrée as it is known in France, has been marked by tighter screening of people entering school buildings, more security drills and a greater police presence.
School officials in France’s national education system have asked teachers and other staff to remain “extremely” vigilant about the threat of a terror attack.
French President François Hollande acknowledged the heightened alert level as he welcomed back pupils, students and their families from holidays on Facebook.
“This is an important day for [children], but also for the country during a difficult time that justifies the security measures that have been adopted. This is a moment that brings us together around one of the pillars of the Republic, which is school,” Hollande said.
Terror once again struck France this summer. First in the Mediterranean city of Nice, where a man killed 86 people when he drove a truck through a crowd gathered to celebrate Bastille Day, France’s national holiday on July 14.
Then in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray, near Rouen, where two young men slit an elderly Catholic priest’s throat and took hostages during a mass before they were shot dead by police. Both attacks were claimed by the Islamic State (IS) group.
Government spokesman Stéphane Le Foll on Wednesday said all measures had been taken to protect schools and prevent a terrorist attack. He added that France remained under a “extremely high terrorism threat level”, and called for “complete and extreme vigilance”.
France’s interior and education ministers held a joint meeting at the end of August to outline the series of measures aimed at bolstering security in schools, the government said.
The measures include better ID checks for adults entering schools when they are not part of the faculty or regular staff. Officials are also encouraging bag-checking outside buildings.
New security drills include an emergency mobile text message system, sent to principals of the 63,600 learning institutions across France – a scheme that was tested successfully for the first time on Wednesday.
During the academic year, schools are required to carry out three other security drills, at least one of which will have to simulate a terror attack or intrusion on the buildings’ premises.
Principals in pre-schools and elementary schools have been asked to carry around a small black remote control, around the size of a car key, which will allow them to alert police of an emergency.
Police have been asked to step up patrols near schools. Some 3,000 army reservists were mobilised for the first day of school on Thursday.