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.
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The 152,700 students at 563 schools return to normal school life, for the first time since schools and daycare centers were closed nationwide in mid-March, due 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.
A school in Rostock has stuck signs on the floor to remind students to keep a distance
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.
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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 twenty years now.
There are also ten million euros 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.
After a month of life under lockdown, Germans are regaining a few freedoms. But they are doing so in patchwork fashion. The 16 individual states are responsible for lifting their lockdowns. The biggest change is that all shops under 800 square meters (8,610 square feet) are allowed to open their doors from April 20. But shoppers in some states — such as Berlin — will have to wait a little longer.
Germany’s most populous state, North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW), was one of the states to allow stores to open right away. Shoppers in Bonn appeared to take full advantage. NRW has also gone a baby-step further than other states, allowing large stores specializing in maternity products to open up.
Cyclists looking for a new purchase were already lining up outside a bike shop in Dinslaken, NRW, after it reopened on Monday. Bike stores, bookstores and car dealerships throughout Germany are allowed to welcome customers again, no matter the shops’ size.
Store owners were just as delighted to welcome back customers, with some launching spring sales to try and tempt a few more inside. A lifestyle store in Ludwigsburg, Saxony-Anhalt, put up a banner reading, “We are back! Nice to see you again.”
Pupils are slowly being allowed back in through school gates. The states of Berlin, Brandenburg and Saxony are permitting older students to return on Monday for classes to prepare them for their school-leaving exams, as well as the tests themselves. Most areas of Germany are targeting May 4 as the day to open schools more widely, but Bavaria, one of the hardest hit states, will wait until May 11.
Animals have had a month off as zoos and safari parks were closed by Germany’s lockdown. But some states are ready to allow visitors to return. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Brandenburg and Rhineland-Palatinate are all permitting zoos to open to some extent. In these and other states people will be able to visit museums again.
Some people have been wearing masks out of choice, but in certain regions they will become a more common sight. There is no nationwide requirement to wear them, but some states are introducing one. From April people using busses and trains and going into shops in Saxony will need something to cover their noses and mouths. Bavaria and Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania will follow with similar measures.
What won’t change are social distancing guidelines. No matter where they are, Germans are still being encouraged to keep 1.5 meters (4.9 feet) away from people they don’t live with. Stores that are reopening are marking this distance in various ways to help customers keep clear of one another.
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 2000 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 twenty 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.