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Coronavirus: German schools develop 'Plan B'

Mikhail Bushuev
November 13, 2020

Almost one in ten schools in Germany have already been directly affected by the second coronavirus wave. Are they equipped for a possible second shutdown?

Empty classroom
Image: imago images/Michael Weber

The second wave of the coronavirus pandemic has largely paralyzed public life in Germany. For now, schools remain open — but the effects of the pandemic are apparent in the classroom. 

According to the German Teachers' Association, more than 300,000 students have been quarantined. In the country's most populous state of North Rhine-Westphalia, over 550 schools are affected by the isolation measures — about one in ten facilities. 

Parents and teachers' associations are concerned about the increasing infection rates in schools. They want to know what will happen when the number of infections increases still further, and whether schools are better equipped than in the spring?

Student looking through virtual reality glasses
Some schools are already experimenting with different tools for digital learningImage: picture-alliance/dpa/I. Fassbender

Preparations for a potential lockdown

In the Gottfried Kinkel elementary school in Bonn, preparations for a potential lockdown are in full swing. So far only one employee has had to be sent into quarantine. But new ideas to tackle a partial lockdown have already been tested.

Read more: Germany debates how to distribute a coronavirus vaccine

The school is currently experimenting on how to combine digital and analog learning, principal Christian Eberhard explains to DW.

"We had a child at home participate in class through a video call for four hours. That worked quite smoothly," he says. "The children reacted well, exchanging information on the computer and solving tasks together. The child at home was happy because they were part of the class community," adds Eberhard.

But the school soon abandoned this learning model, believing it to be unreasonable to expect young children to work online for long periods of time. The school developed an alternative concept that will be used both in classroom teaching and in the event of a school shutdown.

"We would form so-called learning partnerships. Each child has one or two learning partners with whom they can learn cooperatively," explains Christian Eberhard. "These learning partners are supposed to help each other, talk on the phone and coordinate with each other, so that not everything goes through the teacher."

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Positive experiences in the elementary school

In the event of a lockdown, the Gottfried Kinkel school has prepared weekly plans and divided up roles. The day would begin with a "digital morning circle" — a video conference with teachers and their students. Afterward, classes begin, in which tasks and assignments for the next few days would be worked on.

Christian Eberhard
Christian Eberhard is preparing the Gottfried Kinkel elementary school in Bonn for all coronavirus developmentsImage: C. Eberhard

Between 9 a. m. and midday, the teachers would work with the children one-on-one or in small groups. At lunchtime, there would be digital one-on-one meetings to talk about results and problems. In the afternoon, the students would have the opportunity to take part in joint projects, for example using the digital pinboard app "Padlet."

The afternoon is considered an additional educational opportunity at the elementary school. The school is unusual as an "all-day" school — most schools in Germany run from around 8 a. m. to 1 p. m.

Overall, the school feels "well-prepared" should the coronavirus pandemic return with a vengeance in the winter.

Four scenarios at a secondary school

The Friedrich Ebert secondary school in Bonn is also watching the rising number of infections in Germany with growing concern. Last week nine students had to be sent to quarantine. 

"These students are currently receiving teaching, from a distance. They have been sent the weekly schedule and we are setting up video conferences for some subjects," reports principal Frank Langner. Next week, the school management wants to implement a new concept in case of a quarantine which would put distance learning on par with classroom teaching. 

But the idea is not to simply replace four hours of mathematics, for example, with online lessons of the same length. Instead, digital lessons in the main subjects would be limited to one-hour-long video lessons, because of the extra stress attached to video learning. Further lessons would be conducted via learning support.

"Learning support would come by e-mail, telephone, or with the help of video sequences, depending on the situation," Frank Langner says.

His school has prepared for four possible infection scenarios: some students are in quarantine; an entire class is in quarantine; individual teachers are in quarantine and finally, the entire school is closed. All the scenarios raise the difficult question of how to evaluate student performance.


Frank Langner
Frank Langner plans to implement a new concept, putting distance learning on par with classroom teaching. Image: Friedrich-Ebert-Gymnasium

"When I receive a paper, I don't know whether the student worked on it himself or whether his big brother or sister might have helped," says Principal Langner, explaining a key problem with digital teaching.

The school has a solution. During a short-term quarantine of 14 days, students will be checked and evaluated on their performance afterward. In the case of a longer-term quarantine, performance "should only be evaluated via video conference after discussion with the respective students," explains Langner.

Read more: Sweden keeps its laid-back COVID-19 strategy

For internal communication, the Friedrich Ebert grammar school has chosen to use the Microsoft Teams app. Alternatively, the video chat app Yitsi was installed, "which is even more flawless in terms of data protection because it runs on our own server," Langner says.

Breaking new ground in digital learning

Digitalization in German schools is making progress, as the two examples show. The Gottfried Kinkel school was anything but tech-savvy before the first lockdown. This also applies to the teachers. Some colleagues were digitally-minded but "some had never touched an iPad or tablet before," says principal Christian Eberhard.

Shift - Shift Special: The digital classroom


In the beginning, the school relied on Zoom conferences. "Although data protection is important," says Eberhard, "it is not everything. The children's right to learn and be guided is the most important thing."

In the meantime, Eberhard's teachers have taken part in media training courses and tested a variety of apps, along with the children.

Frank Langner from the Friedrich Ebert grammar school admits that he had an advantage as a computer scientist, which is why his school has made rapid progress with digitalization. Nevertheless, there were obstacles. In Langner's experience, the problems start when the hardware is ordered: delivery times are very long at the moment because of the high demand. In addition, there are bottlenecks in maintenance. 

His suggestion is that schools should hire a "digital caretaker." This support technician would "work across three to four schools," estimates Langner. He also wants immediate financial support for the purchase of WiFi routers, cables and other accessories to make the schools ready for digital teaching.

But both Bonn school principals hope to be able to maintain in-person classes, because, according to Christian Eberhard, "nothing can replace it. We need it. We use technology when it adds something — and not just for the sake of it."

This article was translated from German.

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