Coronavirus: Can Germany’s schools safely reopen?

Shortly before the end of the summer holidays in some of Germany’s 16 states, many are still skeptical as to whether the planned return to regular operations in schools will work in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

Coronavirus: Can Germany's schools safely reopen?
Photo: DPA/CosmosDirekt

This Thursday, southern Baden-Württemberg will be the last state to go on summer vacation, while in northeastern Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania the new school year is already set to begin next Monday, August 3rd.

Several other states will begin opening their doors to schools in the days and weeks that follow.

READ ALSO: Here's when summer school holidays start across Germany's 16 states

Before the summer, state education ministers agreed to resume regular operations in the schools, and also to waive the social distancing rules “provided the incidence of infection allows it”. 

In mid-July they presented a new hygiene framework to allow for the safe return of children to the classroom.

Teachers under pressure

Yet according to the German Teachers' Association, schools are not sufficiently prepared to welcome back students.

Association President Heinz-Peter Meidinger told DPA that they fear “a big mess”. 

The Federal Parents' Council expects more school closures as coronavirus cases rise, and they assume that the school year “will by no means run according to plan,” said chairman Stephan Wassmuth.

According to Meidinger, a lack of teaching staff will make it difficult for schools to fully reopen. Education trade unions estimate that up to 20 percent of teachers belong to the risk group and would not be available for in-person teaching. 

The hygiene rules for schools laid down by the education ministers have also been criticised for being impractical, for example the requirement for regular ventilation (stoßzulüften – or fully opening the windows)

“At many schools, the windows in higher classrooms cannot be opened or can only be opened slightly for safety reasons,” said Meidinger.

Sticking together

Robert Koch Institute (RKI) president, Lothar Wieler, said it was important to keep class groups together and not to mix up the classes, as they typically are at secondary schools. So-called “epidemiological units” must be formed, he said Tuesday in Berlin.

Yet Wieler said the measure would only make sense if pupils spent their free time with those from the same “unit”.

Wassmun said he expects school closures in some regions due to the pandemic and demanded concrete plans from the federal states for a “Scenario B” with a mixture of both classroom and distance learning. 

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

“Those who did not prepare this are acting highly negligent and against the students.”

Teachers' Association President Meidinger also thinks it would be sensible for states to draw up lists of subject areas “whose teaching is dispensable in the next school year” as a precautionary measure. 

A pupil in Berlin in March 2019. Photo: DPA

“We have to be honest. There will not be ideal teaching conditions for a long time yet,” he said.

In order to prepare for further possible school closures, Meidinger believes that the billions in subsidies earmarked for school digitization must now be “pumped into the schools at full speed”. 

'Teaching disaster must be avoided'

Left (Die Linke) party leader Katja Kipping said on Tuesday that there was a “dramatic failure of education policy through inaction” and called for school laptops for all pupils, as well as expert working groups at the federal and state level on online teaching. 

Free Democrats (FDP) deputy faction leader Katja Suding called on school boards and states to use the remaining holiday period to ensure that face-to-face lessons could take place to the greatest possible extent after the holidays. 

“A teaching disaster like at the beginning of the coronavirus must not be allowed to happen a second time,” she said, referring to early March when schools across Germany indefinitely closed their doors – open without a plan for reopening. 

READ ALSO: All German states announce school and Kita closures

Germany's Doctors Association stressed that, in whatever way it occurs, children needed to return to to schools.

Without sufficient instruction over a longer period of time, kids are “threatened with enormous problems in their physical and mental development,” said president Klaus Reinhardt.

Key vocabulary

Summer holidays – (die) Sommerferien

Mess – (das) Durcheinander

Social distancing rules – (die) Abstandsregel

Teaching conditions – (die) Unterrichtsbedingungen

We're aiming to help our readers improve their German by translating vocabulary from some of our news stories. Did you find this article useful? Let us know.

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EXPLAINED: The Covid rules you need to know for the new German school term

Children in over a third of the German states are going back to school this week. But the school year 2021/22 is going to be hit by further pandemic restrictions. Here’s the rules in the various states.

EXPLAINED: The Covid rules you need to know for the new German school term
Children at school in Münster. Photo: dpa | Guido Kirchner

The start of the school year is a stressful time for parents and a nervous time for children.

On the first day of school in a normal German school year, children starting the first year of Grundschule will head off carrying a Schultüte, while older siblings will be hoping that they haven’t forgotten too much over the holidays.

This year though there will be an added level of stress, as all of the German states have put further restrictions in place in the classroom which are aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

School starts in Saarland, Rhineland-Palatinate, Lower Saxony, Bremen, Saxony-Anhalt and Bremen this week.

All the German states want to avoid going into distance learning, as was the case for much of the last school year.

So what rules do parents need to be aware of?


School starts in the central German state this Monday, where some 760,000 children will initially be required to observe stricter testing and mask wearing rules than those seen in the summer term.

For two ‘prevention weeks’, during which state authorities fear that children arriving back from summer holidays will pass on the virus, pupils will have to wear medical masks in the classroom and at organized events. They will also have to take antigen tests three times a week.

In the third week the mask wearing rules will be relaxed and pupils will only be required to take two tests per week.

The quarantine rules in the state have been narrowed down to pupils sitting directly next to the infected child and to immediate contact persons.

READ ALSO: How Covid vaccination rules for children differ around Europe

The south-west

In small Saarland, all children and teachers in Saarland will be required to wear medical masks at all times inside the school building and to take two antigen tests per week. The rules will initially apply for the first two weeks of the autumn term.

In Rhineland-Palatinate, too, two tests per week are planned for all children and teachers.

Fully vaccinated and recovered people are to be exempt from the rules in both states.

Lower Saxony

In Lower Saxony, where school starts again on Thursday, daily testing is mandatory for the first seven days of school – that is, until September 10th – according to the local ministry of education. 

Pupils and staff will have to ‘test themselves free’ every day before they can go to school. Those who have been vaccinated or who have recoevered from an infection will not have to take the tests.

In the event that a pupil tests positive, all the children in their class will have to go into quarantine. Those who take a test after the case occurs and have a negative result will be allowed to attend class again. 

Pupils who are fully vaccinated or recovered are not subject to the admission restriction.

Starting on September 13th, only three tests per week will be mandatory.

SEE ALSO: Why Germany is embroiled in a row over vaccinating children against Covid


In Saxony-Anhalt, where classes also begin again on Thursday, all pupils and school staff must undergo an antigen test on the first day of school, according to the Ministry of Education. 

In the two weeks that follow, tests will be given three times a week. After that, there will be a return to the previous system of two tests a week. Fully vaccinated and recovered pupils are exempt.


Children in Bremen will start the new school year on Thursday by taking daily tests. Vaccinated and recovered children are exempt from the testing requirement.

From September 6th, all secondary school pupils will test themselves twice a week with a self-test kit. 

Elementary school children will receive lollipop PCR tests for three weeks from that date. There is no compulsory mask-wearing for classes in Bremen.

If there is a positive case in a class, the entire group must be quarantined – except for those who have recovered and those who have been vaccinated. The quarantine can be ended with a negative test after ten days at the earliest.

What’s going on in states where school has already begun?

In Berlin, where school began in the second week of August, the city still has a ‘traffic light’ system that could end in children being sent into distance learning if the level is risk is assessed as ‘red’.

The situation at each school will be assessed by the local health office every Thursday. When the risk is green, the rules on indoor mask-wearing and three tests per week will apply. With yellow, however, class sizes will be halved, and with red, schools will be closed.

READ ALSO: Which German states are restarting school in August – and what will the rules be?

Hamburg’s school senator Ties Rabe (SPD) has called for the federal government to shorten quarantine rules for schoolchildren. 

“It is incomprehensible that children, who recover faster, still have to remain in quarantine for 14 days and also have no opportunity to test themselves for free,” Rabe told Welt am Sonntag newspaper. 

What about the states still on holiday?

Baden-Württemberg, where school does not restart until mid-September, plans to avoid whole-class quarantines. Instead, in the case of a child testing positive, all children in their class must test themselves daily for five days. 

Since teachers are also contacts, this applies to them as well. However, vaccinated and recovered pupils and teachers are exempt from the testing requirement.

Full attendance is also the goal in Bavaria for the new school year.

The southern state, where the new terms starts in the middle of the month, is yet to publish a detailed plan. But the state cabinet are meeting for discussions on the topic this Tuesday, with mask wearing in the classroom expected to be agreed upon as mandatory.

READ MORE: Masks, Covid jabs, tests and ventilation: How German children are returning to the classroom