When and how will Germany’s daycare centres reopen?

Daycare centres (or Kitas) around Germany have only offered emergency care during the corona crisis, but that's set to change soon.

When and how will Germany's daycare centres reopen?
A sign reading "We miss you" hangs outside of a kindergarten in Stuttgart on April 27th. Photo: DPA

During the corona crisis, many parents have been torn between working from home and taking care of their young children.

Daycare centres (or Kitas) in most states have only been available for parents employed in emergency professions and in some states, such as Hamburg and North Rhine-Westphalia, for single parents.

But now a bit of relief could be underway: Family ministers from each of Germany’s 16 states have published a paper that calls for the “cautious” reopening of Kitas around Germany.

READ ALSO: State by state: When (and how) will Germany's schools reopen?

What does the proposal entail?

A four-phase model, first proposed by Federal Minister of Family Affairs Giffey (SPD), is currently under discussion

The phases include emergency care, as it is already in place; extended emergency care, ie. for single parents in all states, starting on May 11th; limited regular operations; and a return to full normal operations. 

A sign hangs outside of a Berlin Kita telling children they're missed. Photo: DPA

The proposal states that, after every additional phase implemented, the new cases should be closely monitored for two weeks before a further step can follow.

The ultimate goal is still to slow down the spread of the coronavirus and interrupt infection chains. 

Implementing the model will ultimately lie in the hands of each German state. 

Yet Germany's Integration Commissioner, Annette Widmann-Mauz, emphasised that a quick decision would be necessary 

“It cannot be that the reopening of the Bundesliga receives more public attention than parents and children with special needs for support,” she said on Wednesday.

What proposals have so far come from individual federal states?

Berlin's mayor Michael Müller (SPD) announced on Thursday morning that Kitas are in the process of returning to normal operation. “We are already at about 40 percent of operations and gradually going up to 70 percent,” he said on RBB Inforadio.

Bavaria's State Premier Markus Söder has already announced that half of all children will be able to return to Kitas by mid-May. After the beginning of June, the rest of the southern state's Kitas are also slated to open their doors again.

Starting on May 11th, Kitas for up to five children at a time will be allowed again.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania also plans to open up Kitas for all children starting on May 18th.

Lower Saxony's state government has drawn up a step-by-step plan in which Kitas will begin to open up, first with five children at a time, on May 11th.

North Rhine-Westphalia is perhaps the state which is most eager to open up its Kitas. “We will not be put off another week,” said state Family Minister Joachim Stamp (FDP) in a podcast.

He added that necessary steps must be taken day care workers and educators “feel safe even in times of pandemic.” While the state has laid out a plan for opening up public life again, it is still unclear when regular Kita operations will resume

What do independent experts demand?

The Trade Union for Education and Science (GEW) said that sufficient time is needed to gradually bring children back into a daycare setting.

“More children in this situation means that there has to be good planning in order to rearrange rooms, remove furniture, redistribute toys and plan sufficient staffing. This cannot be done overnight,” GEW board member Björn Köhler told the Tagesschau. 

He said that carers also need to be adequately protected: Anyone who belongs to a risk group, or is over 60 years old, should be able to decide for themselves whether or not to look after children. 

In addition, the GEW stated that no more than five children at a time should be looked after.

However, Germany’s Association of Paediatricians and Adolescent Doctors is pushing for a speedy reopening of daycare centres.

Kitas and elementary schools must be quickly reopened “with clever measures to prevent infection,” President Thomas Fischbach told the “Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung”. 

“This may require a lot of effort from teachers and educators. But it is better than letting the children wither away in their own four walls. And that would happen,” he said.

A sign for emergency childcare for single parents hangs outside of a school in Hamburg. Photo: DPA

How great is the risk of infection among children?

The findings on this question vary widely. 

According to a recent study, children can spread the coronavirus in the same way as adults.

The number of viruses which can be detected in the respiratory tract does not differ between different age groups, report researchers led by virologist Drosten from the Charité Hospital in Berlin

Based on their results, the researchers warn against an unrestricted opening of schools and kindergartens in Germany.

A recent study in Iceland had shown that children under ten years of age were significantly less likely to be infected with the coronavirus than adults.

Yet earlier data from China, on the other hand, has suggested that children were infected just as often as adults from the coronavirus, but less likely to become ill. 

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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.