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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

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. 

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