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Back to school in the heat, wearing a mask

August 12, 2020

Schools are reopening around Germany, but the coronavirus shows no sign of abating. In the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, everyone has to wear a mask at school. Not everyone thinks that's a good thing.

young students in classroom wearing masks
Image: DW/P. Hille

It's Christopher Niiaddysai's first day at his new school. The 15-year-old is starting 11th grade. Teachers must now address him like an adult, and in two years, if all going well, he can sit his school graduation exams. As he and his two friends stride purposefully through the gates of their school in Bonn, the sense of expectation is great. The pavement beneath them is still glistening from the overnight thunderstorms and summer is in the air. 

Niiaddysai pauses briefly at the gates and dons a white mask. Like his fellow-students, he'll be wearing it all day. All secondary school students in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia — about two million in total — have to cover their mouths and noses: in the schoolyard, in lessons, in the hallways. It's all aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus. 

young people walking on street outside school
Christopher Niiaddysai (r) on his way to schoolImage: DW/P. Hille

Wearing a mask all day

"It's annoying," says Niiaddysai and pulls at the cloth covering his face. "I can't breathe properly. That makes it hard to learn; it's difficult to concentrate." Masks will remain obligatory at least until the end of the month. He and many other students are hoping that then at least they can take them off during lessons.

Read more: Germany reopens schools in coronavirus pandemic, despite the risks

16-year-old Amelie Gerhardt says "I can live with having to wear a mask in the yard. It's much nicer to be able to smile back at people, to be able to see each other when talking." The most important thing is to maintain distance, Gerhardt says. Before she disappears into the school, she disinfects her hands at the entrance. 

German pupils return to school

Inside, school principal Ursula Dreeser explains the measures that she and her colleagues have taken. Different entrances for different classes, regularly opening the windows, social distancing throughout the school and grounds.

The decision by the state authorities to make masks mandatory came just days ago. NRW is the only one of Germany's 16 federal states to introduce the measure. Dreeser was surprised, too. "I was shocked," she told DW, "because I just can't see people being able to bear it. People may have already had to take a bus or train wearing a mask, had a chance to take it off briefly between the bus stop and school and then put it back on for the rest of the day."

Read more: Is Germany ready for the second coronavirus wave?

Principal Ursula Dreeser
School prinicipal Ursula Dreeser wonders what effect the masks will have on school lifeImage: DW/P. Hille

Counting on masks

Dreeser adds that it is still not clear what effect the masks will have on students' ability to learn. "You get hot and sweaty and maybe you get into a bad mood. On the other hand, we don't know what's right. And protection is better than infection." Dreeser says she will impose the mask rule. The state education minister has called for harsh punishment of people who refuse to wear a mask: ranging as far as expulsion.

Dreeser goes outside to greet students. Anything to restore a bit of normality.

A few kilometers away at another secondary school in Bonn, math teacher Stephan Grothe hands out exercise sheets to his 6th-graders. 384 divided by 4. 882 divided by 7. 975 divided by 5. The list of exercises is long and there are more on Grothe's desk. "Maybe you didn't do so much subtraction and division during the holidays," says Grothe, as he walks up and down past the masked students. 

Stephan Grothe teaching in class
Maths teacher Stephan Grothe says there is no sensible alternative to wearing masksImage: DW/P. Hille

Guess who?

Grothe also agrees that the masks restrict his students. "It's a challenge for all involved," he tells DW. "But I don't see any alternative. It's for everybody's health and there is scientific evidence that it is effective and makes sense." Grothe sees no reason to relax the rules, especially given the recent rise in infections. He says he got used to wearing a mask quite quickly. But now, as the students return from vacation, he sometimes needs a second or two to recognize who is behind the mask. 

Read more: Teachers in England blast unsafe reopening plans

Meanwhile, his students are hunched over the exercise sheet, clutching their pencils and doing the math. The sun starts coming in the window and the temperature rises. Any higher than 27 degrees Celsius and the kids can go home.

Doing math in masks

Despite the mandatory mask-wearing, many students are glad to be back. Schools were closed months before the holidays and all schooling was done at home. "I am happy to be able to sit beside my girlfriends again," says 11-year-old Rosa Holzwarth. She's wearing a pale blue mask but says she doesn't like wearing it very much. 

Beside her, her friend Corine Santara agrees. Santara lives 15 kilometers away in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate. "I go to school here so I have to wear a mask all day. My neighbors don't have to. That's a bummer, it makes you wish you went to school there." 

Rosa and Corine
11-year-old Rosa and Corine are happy to be back at school, although they don't like wearing the masks.Image: DW/P. Hille

Rules or exceptions?

Measures taken to combat the Coronavirus vary from state to state and school to school. Some schools have introduced one-way systems so that students don't have to pass each other. Others are trying to hold as many lessons as possible outdoors.

Christopher Niiaddysai and his fellow 11th-graders gather around the old linden tree in their schoolyard. Three teachers have just welcomed the new students who have formed a semi-circle around them. The teachers explain the rules. If there is enough distance to the next person, it's ok to take off the mask. Christopher Niiaddysai doesn't need to be told twice. He takes a few steps back, rips the mask from his face and takes a deep breath. Who knows when he'll get the next chance? 


Peter Hille Bonn 0051
Peter Hille Peter Hille is a multimedia reporter with a strong background in African affairs@peterhille