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How is the fourth wave affecting German schools?

Kay-Alexander Scholz
November 19, 2021

The highest incidence rates in Germany are among children and teenagers. Schools are trying to stay open. But that no longer works everywhere.

German primary school students COVID wearing masks in the classroom
Germany wants to avoid school lockdownsImage: INA FASSBENDER/AFP

For weeks now, children and adolescents in Germany have been particularly hard-hit by the fourth wave of COVID-19. According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), Germany's public health authority, the highest seven-day incidence rate is currently among children aged 10 to 14. This is followed by the 5-9 age group and the 15-19 age group.  

This means it's primarily schoolchildren who are currently affected. In its weekly report, the RKI recorded 856 outbreaks in schools over the past four weeks. The numbers are "higher than in all previous waves of the pandemic," the report says. Reasons include the easier transmissibility of the delta variant and the expansion of testing in schools.

Why is Germany seeing high COVID rates among children?

Another reason is the fact that many   schoolchildren are not yet allowed to be vaccinated. In Germany, COVID-19 vaccinations are currently allowed only for children from the age of 12. That could change at the end of the year. But there's still no certain date. Discussions are still ongoing.

What politicians are keen to avoid is closing schools. Numerous studies have shown that the psychosocial consequences of widespread school closures were too negative. For a long time during the pandemic,  schools — a place of learning and social interaction — practically ceased to exist.

Germany's parliament has just passed new COVID regulations. Under the new law, widespread school closures will no longer be permitted. During the Bundestag debate on the new bill, the Greens parliamentary leader Katrin Göring-Eckardt promised that from now on, every new bill intended to curb the pandemic or deal with its aftermath will be checked to see how the needs of children and young people, including their need for normal schooling, are taken into account.

Germany’s school mask debate

Some schools still have to go into lockdown

But COVID-19 still affects everyday school life. The eastern state of Saxony, for example, which is home to some 4 million people, is currently a nationwide hotspot for the disease. If infections are identified in class, quarantine measures must be implemented. But sometimes that's not enough. Saxony's Education Ministry currently lists 129 schools as being under temporary restrictions. That includes either specific classes, age groups or, in some cases, entire schools.

There are no nationwide figures on current school closures — but there are other indicators. According to Germany's Conference of Education Ministers, 45,500 school-age children are registered as infected, and 87,000 out of 10 million are in quarantine. In the previous week, there were 23,000 COVID-19 cases among school children and 54,000 quarantine cases.

Jana Schroeder is chief physician at the Institute for Hospital Hygiene and Microbiology at the Mathias-Spital Foundation, which operates hospitals, medical centers and care facilities. Currently, her primary concern is the effects of the pandemic on children.

"Unvaccinated students have the right to a safe school. Protection against infection and education are not mutually exclusive and must not be played off against each other," Schroeder told DW.

Children conducting COVID tests in the classroom
School children are tested regularly — often revealing infectionsImage: Christian Charisius/dpa/picture alliance

Since schooling is compulsory in Germany, the state must ensure the basic right to education and the physical integrity of the individual. "The key is to keep school incidences low, " Schroeder said.

"Lockdowns and school closures happen when the government delays action until it's too late," she said. "The best way to prevent school closures is to prevent infection — protection against infection is also child protection."

The city of Cottbus, with 100,000 inhabitants, is located in southern Brandenburg, the state surrounding Berlin — it is another coronavirus hotspot, but the situation isn't yet as dramatic as in neighboring Saxony.

"Fortunately, no school has been completely closed yet," city spokesman Jan Glossmann told DW. Around 30 schools, daycare centers or after-school care centers are currently affected. "But it's only isolated cases so far," he added.

"We're aware of the desire of the vast majority of parents and students: that learning together and social interaction should be sustained," he said, adding, however, that nothing could be ruled out.

How dangerous is COVID-19 for children?

Keeping schools open means a lot of work for the municipalities. "Every day we get the test results, we have to contact the schools if there are positive cases; the schools contact us to provide information," he said.

Glossmann said he was happy to have 10 Bundeswehr soldiers on hand to support in contact tracing. Without external help, this would no longer be doable. Everything has been well-practiced, but the effort is immense.

"Who was in contact with whom, when and where? Who can be reached, and how? Who's where, and how does the information get to them to tell them to stay at home or quarantine? How is that organized? Are the children cared for? Are the parents informed, and so on," he said. 

Schroeder says infections are spreading throughout schools and that around 1% of infected children are hospitalized. It's also still unclear what effects infections could have later in life, she says.

A study by Dresden University of Technology has shown that children also suffer more from long-term consequences of COVID-19 than previously assumed. So Schroeder says she is strictly in favor of erring on the side of caution.

This article was translated from German.

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