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The Great Coronavirus Experiment: Are German Schools Ready to Reopen?

  • July 31, 2020

According to research by the Complexity Science Hub, a research center in Vienna, the closure of schools, daycares and universities noticeably decreased the reproduction rate measuring new infections. The team working with statistician Peter Klimek is certain: “School closures are very effective.”

Michael Blanck is a teacher for math and physics at Oskar Pitch secondary school in Pasewalk. He admits that there is a lot of nervousness among the teachers about standing in front of the class without protection. “In the school, we pay attention to the hygiene measures, but what does a student do before or after class? I don’t know where they went on vacation, or if they went to a party and drank from the same bottle as other people.” Blanck, 60, the state chairman of the Education Association, would have liked a mask mandate within the school building. He says he will always wear protection when the students get close to him during class.

“One Day to the Next”

“The level of caution has decreased everywhere,” Blanck says. “What can we do about students who consistently break the rules on the coronavirus?” His boss, Kühne-Hellmessen is also aware that “every hour of class under normal conditions represents a risk.” She believes that it’s especially difficult that there is “this constant uncertainty, to have to have to prepare for everything. We can only think from one day to the next.”

The Education Ministry often uses the phrase, “insofar as the infection occurrences allow,” which means, in other words, that a forced quarantine of classes or grades, or even the closure of entire schools, can happen at any time.

And only a few people claim that the schools, about half a year after the first wave, are well prepared organizationally for this moment.

Heike Riedmann from Families in the Crisis initiative says she gets messages almost every day from “totally nervous parents” who don’t know if their child can go to school with a runny nose and when their child needs to go into quarantine. In Bruchsal, a city in central Germany, 46 fourth graders were sent home after having contact with a teacher who tested positive. The 10-year-olds were to go into at-home isolation, according to the Karlsruhe Health Department, and stay as far away from other family members as possible.

Riedmann says that a lot of time had been wasted since March. “The ministries had months to solve technical problems, to hire teacher trainees, to rent additional spaces for the winter months, when it seems like grades will need to be split up.” She argues that simply opening the doors to the schools and seeing if things go wrong or not is simply not enough.  

Stephan Wassmuth, the chairman of the German Council of Parents, also argues that the time was not used to “optimize the teaching plan,” or to prepare schools for online schooling if the number of infections makes new lockdown necessary. He believes it’s a waste of resources for every school to try to find an appropriate online teaching system. “Why can’t this be steered by the federal government?” he asks.

According to a survey of teacher’s associations, the digital equipment in schools in Baden-Württemberg is so bad that distance teaching is not possible. The Education Ministry didn’t manage to get a central teaching platform called Ella to work, and many teachers don’t even have work email addresses. Teachers in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania are in a similar situation. Many schools couldn’t even register for a new digital learning platform there called Itslearning.

Those who have solved these kinds of equipment problems, like Axel Beyer, the head of the Modern School in the Hamburg district of Gros-Borstel, can look forward to the start of the school year in about two weeks: “We are prepared for everything.” In case of a second lockdown, he says, the students could be taught online without having to transition. Beyer is sitting in one of the school’s classrooms on a rainy day in late July, an electronic board is hanging on the wall that allows teachers to write and show worksheets and videos.

A Different Reality

Beyer says that every teacher has a computer and every student has a tablet, and that they are all networked with one another. Before the summer holidays, he says, classes were held via Microsoft Teams, which allows users to share their screens. The students, for example, can watch the teacher at the same time as they can see a solution to a math problem.

Beyer is in a special situation. He heads a private school, and getting the equipment was a pure management issue, not an onerous process limited by administrative hurdles. The teachers were already using an electronic schoolbook that registers homework and attendance. “When a student doesn’t register in the morning on time, the parents get a message on their cell phones,” Beyer says.

The reality in the public education system is usually different. There are single mothers like Doreen Borchert, 37, who has chronic lung problems and thus needs to be especially careful during the COVID-19 pandemic. The office administrator from Munich tried to work from home 25 hours per week, and to entertain her two-year-old daughter on the side and support her eight-year-old son in his distance learning.

But her private laptop is too old to be able to play the instructional videos her son was supposed to watch. So she ended up sharing her work laptop with her son: She used it in the mornings and he took over in the afternoons. But that meant that he was not able to take part in the video chats with his teachers.

When Bavarian students restarted in-person classes following the Pentecost holiday in May, her son went to school every second day, since classes were divided in two to keep numbers down. Classes were only held for two hours. He found the situation frustrating, which, Doreen Borchert says, “resulted in lower motivation.”

Like other German states, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania is planning to evaluate where students stand once school starts again. The idea is to determine the degree to which some students have fallen behind. “Some were quite successful in digital instruction,” says Kühne-Hellmessen, from Pasewalk. “Others, though, were unable to keep up.” It is now up to the schools, she says, to provide targeted and individual assistance to the weaker ones, adding: “We will take on the challenge.” Still, she doesn’t sound completely convinced that they will be successful.

The difference between what educators want to do and what they can do seems too great. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania Education Minister Bettina Martin says it is vitally important to “re-prioritize the interests of the children. Their right to an education must once again be honored.”

On the other hand, Martin must admit that she can only guarantee a minimum of four hours of classroom education daily for elementary schools and five hours daily for secondary schools in the 563 schools in her state. There simply aren’t enough teachers to ensure fulltime in-person lessons given that 400 teachers belong to risk groups and must work from home. “I can only promise what is realistic,” she says.

“It Can’t Continue”

Zarah Abendschön-Sawall is among the many parents who suffered through the months of coronavirus lockdown. The 34-year-old from near Heilbronn has five children, two of whom are in school. Her 13-year-old son, she said, couldn’t deal with the school closures at all. He suffers from ADHD and flipped out regularly at home, she says, yelling and slamming doors. She says that because her 12-year-old daughter had to stay at home for months, she has fallen behind in both English and math. “In the beginning, we did schoolwork together, but we eventually became more negligent because we ran out of energy,” says Abendschön-Sawall, who is in the process of taking over her parents’ equipment-manufacturing company.

She is disappointed in the efforts of many of her children’s teachers. She says there was ample time during the last days before summer vacation to get through subject matter that had been skipped during the lockdown. Instead, she says her daughter spent all day in school on Monday watching movies. Abendschön-Sawall is furious. “We parents do all we can for homeschooling and then that!?”

Ties Rabe, education minister for the city-state of Hamburg, says that priorities have to be changed for the upcoming school year. “Not enough attention has thus far been paid to the happiness and education of children and to their social development,” he says. The interruptions in schooling in the past several months can be overcome, he says, “but it can’t continue. Otherwise I’m concerned about lasting adverse effects for this generation of schoolchildren.”

Whereas parent associations have begun demanding that the 2021 Abitur (Germany’s school-leaving tests) be adapted to account for the loss of classroom instruction, Rabe is currently more concerned about opportunities for those leaving school and their ability to find work-training programs. He says that during the lockdown, Hamburg schools were unable to maintain their intensive job preparation programs and contact facilitation.

When the coronavirus case numbers begin to climb again, Rabe says that regular school operations should not be the first target of pandemic suppression measures. “I would hope that next time, the schools and daycare centers aren’t the first to close down. I hope we say: We’ll close them as a last resort.”

Icon: Der Spiegel

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