MARSEILLE, France (AP) — Twelve million children in France went back to school Thursday for the new academic year, wearing face masks as part of rules aimed at slowing down the spread of the coronavirus in the country.

President Emmanuel Macron visited a primary school in the southern city of Marseille. He was greeted with a fist bump by children and teachers, all wearing masks, which are mandatory indoors starting from age 6.

“We are doing the maximum so the return of children to school can be as normal as possible … as the virus continues to spread,” Macron said in a video message on social media.

Children are also required to wash their hands often, and classrooms must be regularly ventilated.

France’s virus situation has slightly improved in recent weeks, with about 17,000 confirmed cases of infection each day on average, down from more than 23,000 around mid-August. But many fear a reverse of the trend now that children are back to school.

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Macron urged teenagers to get the vaccine, open to those age 12 and older. Schools are organizing vaccinations for those who want to get the shot. Consent from at least one parent is needed for 12-16s.

More than 63% of people aged 12-17 have received at least one shot, and 47% are fully vaccinated.

France is one among countries around the world that have maintained the highest rate of in-person classes during the COVID-19 crisis. The country closed its schools completely or partially for 12 weeks between March 2020 and July this year, to compare with 38 weeks in neighboring Germany and 58 weeks in the United States, according to UNESCO figures.

“We have refused to sacrifice whole generations by keeping them away from school for a long time,” government spokesperson Gabriel Attal said.

In primary schools, if one child tests positive for the virus, the class will close for seven days.

In middle and high schools, children who test positive and those who aren’t vaccinated and have been in contact with them will be placed into isolation for at least one week. Those fully vaccinated will be allowed to keep going to school.

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