It was taken in the northern town of Tourcoing, on the Belgium border, and shows a group of boys and girls being kept away from each other using areas marked out in chalk.
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The three and four-year-olds had returned to classes following almost two months of Coronavirus lockdown as the French government eased restrictions.
“I can’t get over this,” said the historian Laurence De Cock, who posted the picture on Twitter. “This image is heartbreaking. We can’t call this ‘school’”.
Lionel Top, a TV journalist with the BFM news channel, took the photo on Tuesday and said the children had been told to stay in their zones.
“To ensure respect for distances, while taking advantage of recreation, the teaching team drew squares on the ground for the little ones,” he reported.
“The children play, dance, jump, laugh together… but from this square. From what we have seen, they do not view it as a punishment.”
But other commentators expressed their sadness and anger at a scene which looked like it was out of a “horror film”.
“I’ve never seen such a sad picture,” said Myriam Cau. “It’s horrible to subject children to this.”
Lily, another Twitter user, wrote: “Just inhuman, shameful for children but also for teachers and institutes! What horror !!!!”.
Others said it was like a scene from the Halloween series of slasher movies, starring Mike Myers.
And Antoine Diot commented: “The picture of the children in the chalk squares will eventually illustrate this very strange situation in the history books.”
A spokesman for the Ministry of Education in Paris said there were no “specific instruction” for teachers to draw chalk squares for their pupils.
But he confirmed that everybody was under instruction to “maintain social distancing” and not to share anything.
Schools across France started to reopen this week as the country emerged from an eight-week lockdown to contain Covid-19.
French primary school pupils returned to school on May 11 for lessons restricted to around 15 children per class.
Teachers are among those who have expressed extreme concern about this, with many parents keeping their children at home.
The latest figures in France show there have been a total of 26,991 deaths from Coronavirus since the start of the crisis, and 140,227 cases of Covid-19.
Youngsters across The Netherlands were also allowed to return to lessons from May 11 but only on a part-time basis.
Italy started relaxing its lockdown restrictions on May 4.
Schools in Gemany remain largely closed but classes about to graduate this summer will gradually resume and universities will be allowed to hold exams in a number of weeks.
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