The Great Coronavirus Experiment Are German Schools Ready to Reopen?

Schools in Germany are to begin reopening next week, despite the coronavirus pandemic. But many teachers say that too much time has been wasted and that there is still a lack of clear guidelines.
Zarah Abendschön-Sawall together with her family: "We parents do all we can for homeschooling and then that!?"

Zarah Abendschön-Sawall together with her family: "We parents do all we can for homeschooling and then that!?"

Foto: Julian Rettig / DER SPIEGEL

By Jan Friedmann, Annette Großbongardt, Kristin Haug, Armin Himmelrath, Hilmar Schmundt, Alfred Weinzierl and Steffen Winter

The hallways are empty and squeaky clean and the chairs in the classrooms are on the desks. There’s nothing in Oskar Picht Gymnasium, a neo-gothic, brick secondary school in Pasewalk to remind you of the dispiriting past few months in German education. It is the last few days of the summer vacation in Pasewalk, a town in the northern German state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, and a few teachers are sitting in various conference rooms, preparing the new school year. There’s no sign of the pandemic.

Starting on Monday, 440 students are to be taught here again, in German and math, in English, physics and history, the full program, every day. It is an experiment that the whole country is watching: Is it possible to have normal schooling, despite the pandemic?

State education ministers in Germany have promised the "restart of normal operations” after the summer holidays, though special hygiene measures will be in place. Instead of digital improvisation, frustration and chaos, students are to be in a classroom from the morning until the afternoon. "I think this time, even the students are really looking forward to it,” says Cornelia Kühne-Hellmessen, 59, the principal at Oskar Picht. German states stagger their summer vacations, and Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania is the first state in the country to return to the new, old world.

But can they pull off this new start, just as the infection numbers have begun rising again? The principal says that despite all of the concerns, she is confident: "Of course, every day, something can happen, we need to overlook the threat a bit, because it’s about the children being able to learn properly again.”

In Pasewalk, a town with 10,000 inhabitants and only one acute case of COVID-19, it might be possible to block out the threat. But in Hamburg (where school starts on August 6), Berlin (August 10) and North Rhine Westphalia (August 12), not so much.

Plenty of Doubts

There, and in many other regions where the virus is more present, students, parents and teachers are looking critically at what politicians and authorities have done to fulfill their promise of returning to normal operations. There are plenty of doubts that the strategies will suffice.

A teacher at a primary school near Bonn is frustrated. And annoyed. So annoyed that he has requested that his name not be printed because he is concerned about running into problems with the department he works for. The 55-year-old says, "I have sometimes thought: 'They're off their rocker.'" By "they” he means the officials in the North Rhine-Westphalia’s Education Ministry "who really have no idea what is going on in the schools.”

He said he has received the directive that fixed learning groups without social distancing can be taught together in primary schools. "That sounds good,” says the teacher, "but here we only have cross-grade teaching in classes one to four - there aren’t any fixed groups here.”


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 32/2020 (August 1, 2020) of DER SPIEGEL.

The teacher is also irritated about the last-minute nature of the instructions from Düsseldorf. He suspects that this is due to the way the political process tends to work: "There is always a meeting of the governors with Angela Merkel on Wednesdays, and the education ministers come to an agreement on Thursdays, and the e-mail from the ministries sometimes only arrive at the schools on Saturdays – and then we are supposed to have already implemented all of that on Monday.” He says his colleagues at his school had already reached their limits before the holidays, supervising some of the kids with in-person teaching and others, simultaneously, from afar. "It was consistently a double workload.” One and a half weeks before the first day of school, he says, there have been "thus far only generalities from the ministry.”

Cornelia Kühne-Hellmessen in Pasewalk is further along, since she knows, at least in theory, how things are supposed to proceed. Her state’s Education Ministry has now sent out 85 advisory memos on how to handle COVID-19 in the school.

Ventilation and Sneeze Etiquette

According to these instructions, fixed age groups are to be organized that don’t need to maintain distance from one another, but which are not allowed to meet or mix with other groups. "The goal is to avoid larger groups,” the principal says.

In the cafeteria, the students are only allowed to eat in the spaces assigned to their age group, and in the hallways, staircases and in conferences, the 1.5-meter distance rule still applies. In the schoolyard, Kühne-Hellmessen intends to mark a fixed area for each age group where they must stay during recess.

The suggestions from the education ministers otherwise point to self-evident things like ventilation and sneeze etiquette, but they don’t provide answers to many important questions. That, at least, is Heidrun Eibracht's view. She is head of the Janusz Korczak school in the western German city of Gütersloh and is still waiting for information about how to handle those members of her staff that were exempted from in-person teaching before the holidays, because they belong to a risk group.

Sixteen colleagues of hers were recently exempted from teaching duties. "If in two weeks that means 10 people are working part-time at 20 hours each, then I’m already missing 200 teaching hours per week,” Heidrun Elbracht calculates.

The principal points out that Plexiglas walls are being erected everywhere in public, in government offices and in stores, and rules of behavior are being mandated, "but for 1,400 people in the school here, there are only hygiene instructions.” She says she feels abandoned.

Doro Moritz, the head of the Trade Union for Education and Science (GEW) in the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg, suspects this is intentional. She believes that the state ministers are "simply dumping vague formulations and impractical instructions on the school leadership as well as on teachers.” She says that the memos sent by the ministerial bureaucrats includes a lot of "should” and "categorically,” which means the public pressure from many parents for a rapid return to normality will simply be passed onto the teachers.

"Totally Grotesque"

Moritz believes Stuttgart’s rules on mask mandates are "totally grotesque.” She explains that the rules state that they don’t need to be worn in primary schools, and they are mandatory outside of the classrooms in the secondary schools. "But snacking is allowed,” says Moritz. "If I was a student who doesn’t want to wear a mask, I would just run around all the time with a snack in hand.”

Baden-Württemberg Education Minister Susanne Eisenmann has declared that it is a top priority that "we all together prevent a second wave.” That idea only falls apart when it comes to "how.” Teacher associations would like to have protective screens on their desks. The Education Ministry would like to deploy teachers as security guards, arguing that, "at least during the breaks,” they are to watch over the entries to the restrooms in order to limit the number of people inside.

And, according to the hygiene plan, "if there are waiting areas for school transport or local transport near the school, appropriate supervisory measures must be taken after school hours to ensure that distance and hygiene rules are also observed there.” Many teachers are wondering: Are they nuts?

When it comes to the relationship between the ministries and their schools, it’s also true that some principals are pleased that the rules aren’t too restrictive. Tatjana Strucken belongs to this self-confident group. The 45-year-old leads the European School in Kerpen, which is located between the western German cities of Aachen and Cologne. The secondary school has almost 2,000 students and a staff "with which we get an awful lot done,” she says.

When the schools had to close in mid-March, several teachers established an online learning platform with groups for all students and teaching staff. Others trained the employees with improvised sessions on digital teaching methods. Afterwards, Tatjana Strucken says, the transition into distance schooling worked relatively well.

A Sensible Mixture

During the summer holidays, Strucken and her team developed two full-fledged class schedules for the new school year – one with regular classes and one with smaller groups. When things start the week after next, the European School is prepared for a potential partial closure: "We are managing a sensible mixture of face-to-face and distance learning,” she says.

Tatjana Strucken believes that imposing a standard solution for all schools would be restrictive: "Schools are much too diverse to be managed centrally, especially in crisis situations.”

And then there’s the fact that scientific knowledge about the virus continues changing from week to week – for example, on the question of how infectious children really are. There is no clear answer yet, but it seems like children below the age of 10 are considerably less infectious than the average of the population. This is according to the calculations of Korean researchers who evaluated almost 60,000 contacts by more than 5,700 people who were infected with the coronavirus. The children only passed the virus on to members of their own household in 5 percent of cases. A new study released on Friday, however, seems to call those results into question.

Older students between the ages of 10 and 19, however, are considerably more infectious than the average of the population and infected 18.6 percent of their own households.

In schools, this means that what currently seems harmless for first graders is risky for secondary schools. In Israel, the early opening of schools in the spring led to a setback in the fight against the virus – and to a new lockdown of educational establishments.

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."

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