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‘The right thing to do’: How Germany is reopening its schools

Hundreds of thousands of German pupils returned to schools and kindergartens for the first time in two months on Monday, despite fears of a third coronavirus wave fuelled by the British variant.

'The right thing to do': How Germany is reopening its schools
A teacher with a FFP2 mask in the classroom on Monday in Hemmingen, Baden-Württemberg. Photo: DPA

Schools and daycare centres reopened in 10 German regions, including the capital Berlin and the most populous state North-Rhine Westphalia.

Most schools are limiting the return to pupils attending primary classes one to three. Class sizes have also been halved, alongside other precautions such as mask-wearing and airing out rooms, but critics have questioned whether the timing is right for the reopenings.

In discussions with party colleagues on Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel reportedly mooted plans for a step-by-step relaxation of measures in areas such as social contact, schools and restaurants and culture.

Merkel argued that relaxation measures should be strongly tied to testing, according to participants in the meeting.

Yet experts are warning that Germany could be at the start of a third coronavirus wave, as case numbers have begun to rise again in recent days.

On Monday, the nationwide seven-day incidence rate returned to 61 cases per 100,000 people after sinking to almost 50 in the past weeks.

“We're seeing that the numbers are climbing again. That's annoying, and it brings back some uncertainty,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told public broadcaster ARD Sunday, urging “caution”.

READ ALSO: Germany urges 'caution' as Covid-19 infections climb and schools reopen


Primary school children returned to the classroom in Berlin on Monday morning. Photo: DPA
 

Children's wellbeing

Spahn had said last week that the more infectious UK variant of the coronavirus is spreading rapidly in Germany, where it now accounts for more than one in five cases.

Yet Families Minister Franziska Giffey defended the decision to allow schools to reopen on Monday.

“Taking the first steps to open things up is the right thing to do for children and their wellbeing,” Giffey told broadcaster ZDF.

She admitted however that schools may have to close again in regions with a dramatic rise in case numbers.

Education policy falls under the remit of individual federal states in Germany, meaning school reopenings differ from region to region.

In Berlin, primary school pupils will have to wear masks during lessons, with class sizes reduced to half the usual size and classes alternating between school and remote learning.

Other states such as Saxony are offering a full programme, with classes split into strictly separated smaller groups.

READ ALSO: Hard-hit German state pushes for reopening of schools

In the northern city of Hamburg, meanwhile, schools remain largely closed until the beginning of March.

Many states are also planning to roll out regular tests for teachers, after Germany announced free antigen tests for all citizens from March onwards.

Teachers may also soon be moved into a higher priority category for inoculation.

Regional health ministers are set to discuss such a move on Monday, despite reservations from Germany's vaccination commission, which wants to prioritise patients and vulnerable people.

By Kit Holden

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COVID-19

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.

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