For many a kid, the announcement "school closed" might bring delight. But in eastern Germany, where it's become a reality, the closing of schools is yet another symbol of the region's economic woes.
Children on their way to school -- a rare sight in eastern Germany
The school day begins early for Anne Zielasko. It's 5:30 in the morning and time for her to get ready to leave home. She has to wake up earlier this year because the school she used to attend in a neighboring town has closed.
"It's exhausting. I'm tired on the bus and have to make sure I don't fall asleep at school. I don't get home until around 4:00 in the afternoon after getting up at 5:00. It's really tiring," she said.
Anne leaves home every day shortly after 6:30. It takes her 10 minutes to walk to the bus stop. The school she used to go to in the town of Pretzsch was only eight kilometers (4.8 miles) away. Now she has to travel 38 kilometers to Wittenberg. The trip takes almost an hour and a half. Anne says she likes her new school, if only the journey to get there were shorter.
The long commute to school is the product of changing economic circumstances in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt. As in other parts of the economically depressed East, when unemployment rises, people leave in search of jobs in the more affluent parts of the country. They leave behind vacant houses and unpopulated neighborhoods. When the families go, the schools empty out and eventually close down for lack of pupils.
Anne's mother has gone to a lawyer to try to change the situation. "I know it's wishful thinking, but my dream is for the school to be reopened. That's what I want. But I don't think it's possible," she said.
Anne used to attend the Heide High School in Pretzsch. With the support of the town's mayor, parents fought to have the school re-opened. They even proposed setting up a private school. But school authorities and state educators rebuffed the idea. They said there were simply too few pupils to make it worth the money it would cost to keep the building in operation.
Vacant houses are a frequent sight in eastern Germany
Around 20 percent of the working population in Pretzsch is unemployed. One by one, shops shut down, and people who have the chance leave. Only the older residents remain. There are hardly any families with young children left, and no one new is moving in.
"We have an industrial estate here in Pretzsch that's conveniently situated along a main road. Every year I get two or three inquiries from companies interested in setting up business here," said Karlheinz Horn, mayor of Pretzsch. "But as soon as I say there are no schools, the companies are no longer interested. They don't come back."
More school closures ahead
But Pretzsch isn't the only town affected. In the past 10 years, almost one-third of the schools in Saxony-Anhalt have been shut down as the number of children declines. State education officials have said they plan to close down even more in the coming year.
"It's a responsible move," said Jan-Hendrik Olbertz, culture minister for the state. "We have a changing population structure in the eastern states. In the future we're going to have half the number of schoolchildren, therefore we can't continue to run the same number of schools we have now."
For Anne and her family, the situation will only get worse. "I think the countryside is pretty and I would like to be able to stay here," she said. "But the way things look now, I can't really see any future. School is a problem, as well as vocational training and my career and so on."