‘Corona-Holidays’: Is closing German schools over virus fears the right call?

Individual schools have already closed their doors throughout Germany due to coronavirus fears, but how useful would this be as a large-scale measure? Health experts are divided.

'Corona-Holidays': Is closing German schools over virus fears the right call?
A teacher writes on the board for an elementary school class in Baden-Württemberg. Photo: DPA

German children used to hope for Hitzefrei – a term for school cancellation due to extreme heat, the opposite of a snow day.

This year, a new type of school closure is becoming more common: In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, dozens of schools in Germany are temporarily closed.

The German Teachers' Association (Deutsche Lehrerverband, or DL) estimates that around 100 schools and daycare centres across Germany are currently affected by closings.

In some areas, such as Heinsberg in North Rhine-Westphalia, all schools have been closed for the time being. Some doctors surgeries and other facilities have also shut their doors if there's a threat of the virus spreading.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus: What restrictions are there on daily life in Germany?

The impact is much greater elsewhere. Worldwide, tens of millions of children are already missing classes.

Years from now, kids might reminisce about the year 2020, when coronavirus shut down their schools for days or even weeks.

The downside? Experts are by no means in agreement that large-scale school closings make sense to contain the coronavirus

Consequences of closures

In Germany, officials currently apply this rule: as soon as a confirmed case affects an educational institution, temporary closure follows. The Bavarian Ministry of Health officially enforces this rule.

In Munich, travellers coming back from at-risk areas – for example northern Italy – are not allowed to visit a school or daycare centre for 14 days.

Early data analyses show that, unlike regular flu, children are probably not significant drivers of the spread of Covid-19 – also referred to as Sars-CoV-2 or coronavirus – throughout communities. 

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is safe to anticipate that children infected with coronavirus will often not develop clear symptoms. Therefore, they say we can assume children mainly contract it from adults, but adults rarely catch it from children.

“School closures can make sense if hygiene measures cannot be guaranteed,” said virologist Ulrike Protzer from the Technical University and the Helmholtz Zentrum, both in Munich.

“But you have to consider the enormous impact on the economy, especially on the health system. Young parents can no longer go to work because they have to look after their children.”

A school compound in Rhineland-Palatinate is closed due to a coronavirus infection among the teachers. Photo: DPA

Stopping spread, not infection

When discussing measures like quarantine, school closures and event cancellations, it is important to understand that these procedures are not enforced because the virus is extremely dangerous.

In fact, many people who are not in at-risk groups can fight the infection. 

“They're really meant to slow the spread,” explained Protzer. “If we have a virus that infects 100 percent of susceptible people, it spreads very quickly.”

READ ALSO: Germany urges events with more than 1,000 to be cancelled over coronavirus

As a result, the healthcare system could become overloaded, making it harder for those with serious complications to get treatment.

“Even if we say we are going to close a school, it's not because we're afraid the children will get sick,” Protzer said. “It's about curbing the spread of the virus.”

The spokesman for the board of the German Society for Hospital Hygiene (Deutschen Gesellschaft für Krankenhaushygiene, or DGKH), Peter Walger, agreed that school closures might not be the best course of action. 

The problems that would arise from the childcare required would not be in proportion to the benefits, Walger said. He also pointed out that parents would be forced to stay at home, creating larger consequences in the community. 

“It is not worth closing schools,” Walger said. 

Kids walk near their elementary school in Frankfurt. Photo: DPA

Disagreement amongst officials

The Bavarian State Office for Health and Food Safety (Bayerische Landesamtes für Gesundheit und Lebensmittelsicherheit, or LGL), however, does not agree, saying closures have the potential to contain the epidemic. 

There are new findings that show children are as easily infected as adults. In a recent study, researchers came to the conclusion that children may become infected as often as adults – but only very rarely get sick. 

It is still unclear why children are apparently better able to ward off a Sars-CoV-2 infection.

“The question is currently open as to whether children can transmit the virus to other people as effectively as adults,” said the LGL. The extent to which children without symptoms pose a risk of transmission cannot currently be answered with certainty, DGKH spokesman Walger also said.

READ ALSO: Coronavirus: The everyday precautions to take if you're in Germany

Contagious or not, for more and more children the next few days will probably remain school free because of Sars-CoV-2.

The German Teachers' Association (Deutsche Lehrerverband, or DL) estimates that around 100 schools and daycare centres across Germany are currently affected by closings on a daily or weekly basis. 

“But this is an estimate that in reality could grow at any time,” said DL President Heinz-Peter Meidinger.

According to Meidinger, the Teachers’ Association opposes nationwide school cancellations, or so-called “Corona-Holidays,” because the measure would only be effective if it was accompanied by the closure of all companies, workplaces and restaurants.

Communities might also need to enforce curfews and shutting down local and long-distance public transport.

And even then Meidinger says the question would remain, “What happens with the corona-closures, if, after two weeks, new infections keep increasing? Do you extend the closures again and again, in the face of enormous consequences for final exams and school work?” 

Therefore, his position is this: “At the present time, the DL thinks little of widespread school closures as an effective, isolated measure.”

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Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

High profile German virologist Christian Drosten believes Germany will see a severe spike in Covid infections after summer, and that the pandemic will not become endemic this year.

Pandemic in Germany unlikely to end this year, says top virologist

Drosten previously said that Germany would probably be able to declare the end of the pandemic this year.

But in an interview with Spiegel, Drosten said he had reevaluated his opinion. 

“When the Alpha variant came, it was very surprising for me. When Delta appeared I was sceptical at first, then with Omicron we had to reorient ourselves again. And since January there have already been new Omicron subtypes.

“So I would actually like to correct myself: I no longer believe that by the end of the year we will have the impression that the pandemic is over.”

READ ALSO: End is in sight for pandemic in Germany, says virologist 

Drosten also said that Germany will not see a largely Covid-free summer, which has been the case in previous years, and a further increase in infections in autumn. 

“We are actually already seeing an exponential increase in case numbers again,” Drosten said.

“The BA.5 variant (of Omicron) is simply very transmissible, and people are losing their transmission protection from the last vaccination at the same time.”

In other countries, he said, when the number of cases become high, hospitalisation and death rates also rise again. “Unfortunately, that will also be the case here,” said Drosten, but added: “Overall, however, far fewer people will become seriously ill and die than in 2021.”

Drosten said he expected many more infections from September.

“I hope that the school holidays will dampen the increase in cases somewhat. But from September, I fear we will have very high case numbers,” the head of the virology department at Berlin’s Charité hospital told Spiegel.

READ ALSO: German Health Minister lays out autumn Covid plan

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021.

Virologist Christian Drosten at a Covid press conference in 2021. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Kay Nietfeld

If the government does not take any action, he predicted there would be a lot of sick leave across all industries. “That will become a real problem,” he said.

Drosten said he did not expect overcrowded intensive care units in Germany.

But the new BA.5 sub-variant, which is becoming dominant in Germany, may affect people more strongly. 

“The wheel is turning more towards disease again,” said Drosten. It is not true that a virus automatically becomes more and more harmless in the course of evolution. “That makes me even more worried about the autumn,” he said.

Drosten recommends wearing masks indoors during the colder months, saying it is “the least painful” measure.

If, in addition, “up to 40 million people could be immunised or given a booster vaccination” before winter, for example by urgently calling for company vaccinations, that would “really make a difference”, Drosten said.

In the long term, he said it’s inevitable that people will become infected with coronavirus.

He said the population immunity due to vaccinations and infections will at some point be so strong that the virus will become less important. “Then we will be in an endemic state,” said Drosten. In the worst case, however, this could take “several more winters”.

However, Drosten warned against people trying to deliberately infect themselves with Covid, saying getting the infection in summer doesn’t mean people will be protected in winter. 

Drosten himself said he has not yet contracted Covid-19.

“So far, I guess I’ve just been lucky,” he said. “I rarely put myself in risky situations, but I’m not overly cautious either.”

‘Pandemic depends on behaviour’

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI)’s latest weekly report, more outbreaks are occurring in care homes, and the number of patients in intensive care units is slightly rising as infections go up. 

The institute said there had been a 23 percent increase in the 7-day incidence compared to the previous week. On Friday the 7-day incidence stood at 618.2 infections per 100,000 people. There were 108,190 infections within the latest 24 hour period and 90 deaths. 

“The further course of the pandemic depends not only on the occurrence of new virus variants and the uptake of vaccinations on offer, it also depends to a large extent on the behaviour of the population,” said the RKI.

According to the DIVI intensive care register, the number of Covid-19 patients in ICUs had increased to 810 on Thursday this week, from about 600 at the beginning of the month.

However, that number is still low compared to previous Covid peaks when thousands of people were in intensive care in Germany.