All of Germany is looking toward the eastern state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania in the coming days. In 2020, the sparsely populated region in northeastern Germany is the first to start the school year this time.
Summer holidays are staggered in Germany, so not all 16 federal states go on vacation at the same time, clogging the nation's airports and famed autobahns. This year's return to school can best be described as a large-scale experiment.
Some 152,700 students at 563 schools are to return to normal school life for the first time since schools and day care centers were closed nationwide in mid-March owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.
If regular classes Monday through Friday can't be done, the authorities want students to get at least four to five hours' schooling every week. Even music and sports are back on the curriculum.
The state government says it is feasible because of the low rate of infection and the small number of active cases in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, which has one of the lowest infection rates in the country. But it is still a far cry from "normal."
Strict statewide hygiene rules have been put in place: Students are told to keep their hands off the banisters when taking the stairs — and to wash them frequently. Disinfectant is to be used sparingly and only when deemed necessary — and mixed into cleaning water rather than sprayed pure. Masks are not obligatory and teachers can avail of free testing for the coronavirus.
Classes have been reorganized, creating so-called "cohorts" groups of several hundred students. The "cohorts" are advised to stay apart, but social distancing rules are being done away with within each group. Classes are being scheduled on a staggered basis. Each cohort has its own area in the school grounds, cloakrooms, restrooms and canteens.
The hope is that if there is an infection, only the respective "cohort" will have to be quarantined, rather than the entire school. In the event of new infections, it is not the schools that decide the next course of action, but the local health authorities. For example, whether to quarantine an entire school or just the respective "cohort."
Politicians are agreed on the need to avoid large-scale closures.
The approach was called for by the Robert-Koch-Institut (RKI), Germany's highest authority when it comes to health matters. RKI president Lothar Wieler said it was important to keep certain groups together and others apart to minimize the risk of infection and improve tracing capabilities in the event of one.
Online classes for homeschooling, dubbed "distance learning" by the relevant authorities, is to be avoided in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania. As the state education ministry's decree put it: "Complementary distance learning usually takes the form of digital learning and is to be used mainly for exercises and repetition."
In the process, the ministry has called for an "increase in 'self-organized' learning, in accordance with individual progress," at the state's primary and secondary schools.
According to the Education Ministry, distance learning is mainly to be used when there is a shortage of teachers. Around 400 of the state's 13,000 teachers are considered at high risk for COVID-19 and will, therefore, work from home.
Government press spokesman Henning Lipski said it was hoped that the class schedules would also provide a skeleton plan in the event of rising infection numbers. He said a lot had been done in recent weeks to make sure the logistical and organizational aspects work.
The schools are being offered a commercial-cloud-based learning management system. Its makers say the product has been on the market for more than 20 years now.
There are also €10 million ($11.7 million) from the federal government's so-called Digital Pact to be spent. Lipski said the money would be used to buy laptops and other devices that students could borrow when need be. There have been widespread concerns that poorer students would fall behind because their families could not afford the kit required for the new approach.
And even if the students have everything they need, what about the teachers, many of whom are a long way from being "digital natives?" The authorities say 2,000 teachers have taken part in online training courses on "digital didactics" in recent weeks.
Schools deemed low-risk
Many doctors favor a return to as "normal" a school day as possible. Schools are considered lower-risk. In May and June, 2,600 students and teachers were tested as part of a pilot project.
Wieland Kiess, head of the University Clinic in Leipzig, says not a single acute infection was found. And fewer than 20 of those tested had antibodies in their blood, which usually indicates an infection in the past.
Kiess says children are not especially prone to getting or passing on infections and that this is why he is against large-scale closures to deal with isolated outbreaks.
And when Kiess says that a new lockdown would have negative psychological and physical repercussions for young people, he is speaking for many.