A new school year begins as coronavirus cases continue to increase in Germany. Rules vary from region to region, and the equipment is often inadequate. Can schools handle the challenge of educating during the pandemic?
As the summer holidays end, the number of new SARS-CoV-2 infections is rising again in Germany, as in many European countries. Despite this, kindergartens, schools and educational institutions are being reopened, partly, officials say, to take the burden off of working parents, but also for the children — even as fresh outbreaks have swiftly shut schools back down.
The virologists, doctors, representatives of industry, politicians, teachers and parents' representatives who have put forth the plans for reopening schools have very different ideas on how best to resume operations. Because of this, Germany is one of the many European countries where officials have failed to come up with uniform rules in recent months. Each German state is responsible for education policy within its borders, and rules for school operations after the summer holidays differ considerably among them — and sometimes even from one school to another.
A consensus has been reached on the compulsory wearing of masks, physical distancing, hygiene precautions and fixed study groups as measures to reduce the risk of infection. But how this is to be handled in practice remains a matter of interpretation.
The most important regulations at a glance:
After the summer holidays, day care centers, schools and educational institutions are to be reopened across Germany. Face-to-face teaching is to resume in most cases. States are meant to come up with pragmatic concepts to minimize the risk of infection and to prevent across-the-board school closures.
According to the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs (KMK), a body that coordinates educational practices at the national level in Germany, "regular operations" are to be organized "against the background of specific local conditions." In other words, the federal states must draw up the rules and regulations themselves.
Schools have been instructed to develop comprehensive hygiene concepts. This includes making disinfectants available, cleaning sanitary facilities regularly and ensuring good ventilation in classrooms.
Still, many schools suffer from a lack of space, with classrooms that are so small — or classes that are so large — that rules on distancing are unenforceable.
What is more, many classrooms do not have functioning washbowls, sanitary facilities are often in poor condition, many windows cannot be opened for safety reasons, and the respective municipalities lack money for overdue renovations.
Some states want the use of simple face masks to become mandatory at schools. However, rules vary on who should wear the protective masks and when.
Many states require the wearing of masks in corridors or rooms used during breaks, but not during lessons. In addition, students at primary schools will mostly be exempted from the rule because officials consider them incapable of wearing the masks properly and because they are considered to be at a decreased risk of contracting the coronavirus.
Other states, such as the most populous one, North Rhine-Westphalia, insist on compulsory masks at all schools: in the buildings, on the premises and in classrooms if pupils and teachers cannot maintain the recommended minimum distance of 1.5 meters (5 feet) between people.
Wherever possible, students will be organized in fixed learning groups to which particular teachers are assigned. These groups are meant to avoid mixing at schools.
This is designed to limit the risk of infection and make it possible to isolate individual learning groups should an infection occur. By identifying clusters and interrupting chains, schools might prevent larger-scale measures, such as a return to lock-ins.
This presents enormous difficulties.High schools, for example, are usually organized in comprehensive courses. There are often not enough rooms or teachers to allow face-to-face teaching to small groups.
Teachers' and parents' representatives are critical of the planned measures for a return to "normal operations." They advocate a mixture of face-to-face and online teaching. However, they also see a considerable need among many schools, pupils and teachers to bring digital teaching methods up to scratch.
In many states, teachers are to be offered voluntary free COVID-19 tests before the start of the school year. In the opinion of the Society for Virology, teaching staff should have continued easy access to tests after this as well.
According to the virologists, students with acute respiratory tract infections should also be given COVID-19 tests immediately so that possible clusters can be detected early.
If a critical increase in new infections toward the end of 2020 is partly attributed to the resumption of school activities, the virologists recommend an extension of the winter break. "Over Christmas, there is likely to be a further increase in the risk of infection due to holiday-related travel and family celebrations," according to the society.