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EXPLAINED: Are all German schools really going to open again before Easter?

The German states announced earlier in March that they want all children to start attending school this month, regardless of their age. But a third wave of the virus is already turning these plans upside down.

EXPLAINED: Are all German schools really going to open again before Easter?
Children on their way to school in Berlin. Photo:picture alliance/dpa | Annette Riedl

“The Council of Education Ministers is in agreement. We want all pupils to go back to school in March,” said Britta Ernst, head of the education council, back on March 5th.

“Even if mutated viral strains change the picture, we cannot afford to wait for a few more weeks. The school closures come with too high a social price for that to happen,” Ernst added.

As head of the pan-state education board, she was speaking for the entire country’s education system, which is run at the state level.

After primary schools and nurseries (Kitas) started opening in late December, high schools were supposed to follow suite in March. 

But with the Robert Koch Institute recently predicting that the spread of the “British variant” would lead to a third wave of the virus more severe than either of the previous two, the immediate future of the schooling system is far from certain.

Will more schools follow an ’emergency brake’ model?

The southern state of Bavaria opened all of its schools back up on Monday – but on the condition that the local 7-day incidence is below 100. The situation will be re-evaluated every Friday.

With the case level rising in much of the state, the reality was that only two-thirds of the 96 Bavarian districts could actually open their schools this week. 

Nuremberg and Regensburg were among the cities that kept high school children in distance learning, while closing primary schools and nurseries.

Bavarian state leader Markus Söder promised last week that schools in the southern state would receive 100 million rapid tests so that children could safely come into the classroom.

But teachers have expressed anger at the fact that schools have started opening before these tests kits have arrived.

They also say that many teachers have still not been vaccinated yet, and express concern that gym classes are allowed despite the high aerosol output that doing sport entails.

Saxony is another state that has decided to open all schools based on the 7-day incidence of 100. This means that it too has had to keep schools in hotspots closed.

A child takes a corona test in Bavaria. Photo: DPA/Matthias Balk

School attendance regardless of infection rate

Other states made clear that they intend to keep schools open even if coronavirus cases rise in the general population.

The southwestern state of Baden-Württemberg has been most vocal in calling for schools openings. Some schools have rebelled against these plans. One grammar school in the town of Marburg said it would only start alternating lessons as ”it is not responsible to put 1,000 children in such a small area.”

In other towns in Baden-Württemberg, local mayors have rebelled against the state government by closing schools based on a high 7-day incidence of the virus.

In North Rhine-Westphalia the state government’s insistence on opening up schools is also causing tension.

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

The small towns of Düren, Lüdenscheid, and Iserlohn appealed to the education ministry for permission to close schools based on high infection rates last week. But the state government told them they had to keep schools open.

But the pressure grew on Tuesday, when the major city of Dortmund declared his intention to keep schools closed.

“We are convinced that it makes no sense at all to open the schools at the moment. And that’s why we have made an urgent appeal to the education minister to immediately end the opening of schools,” Dortmund’s mayor Thomas Westphal said.

Teachers in Berlin reject class time

In Berlin, the Senate had agreed to start in-person teaching for the grades 10 to 13 this Thursday. There are then plans to bring the rest of high school students back into the classroom the following week.

But the capital’s exact plan is vague. The senate has left it up to each school to decide how much class time they want to offer.

Surveys show that a large majority of teachers in the capital reject going back into the classroom until they have been vaccinated. That could take a while though, as teaching staff were supposed to receive the AstraZeneca jab, the use of which was suspended on Monday.

A change in the vaccine priority list announced in February put all primary school teachers and nursery teachers into priority group 2, alongside those aged 70-79. 

Rising cases among kids

Critics of the school openings point to data which suggests that children are now driving the pandemic.

In the past two weeks, Robert Koch Institute data shows that the increase in the number of infections among children aged up to nine was stronger than in any other age group – that’s the first time that’s happened since the start of the pandemic.

Epidemiologists caution that part of this increase is due to increased testing in that age group.

“The schools have been opened up in part with testing programmes in place,” Berit Lange from the Helmholtz Centre for Infection Research in Braunschweig told Spiegel Online. “Even if these programmes are not yet fully functional nationwide, the number of tests is increasing as a result.”

In addition, she says, children have been tested more frequently even for mild symptoms as a result of the school openings.

But Lange says that it is clear that closer contact among children will lead to more infections. “Schools are an area where contacts take place again. Of course, infections also occur there.”

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

Member comments

  1. It is appalling to see a country like Germany getting its Strategy wrong with every different topic related to the Pandemic. One cannot understand why basic common sense cannot be applied and make the necessary push to ensure rapid tests and vaccinations before urging for schools to re-open. This half baked strategy only leads to a high number of cases and on the other hand doesn’t relieve any social pressure on the children or parents as the fear of catching the virus is always there. While one can even understand the situation of holding vaccine stocks for the vulnerable until more Vaccine stocks arrive for speeding up the process and offering to everyone, I cannot understand the muddled strategy surrounding re-openings of different aspects of social life. It always seems that we go two steps ahead only to be pulled back by four steps.

  2. I am a secondary teacher in Germany, and like all secondary teachers here, I am not allowed to be vaccinated. I am currently in school with students each day. I am frightened and I am disheartened by what this situation has shown about how politicians and parents regard teachers.

    Why aren’t secondary teachers permitted to get the vaccine? After putting my heart and soul into my teaching and my students for years, the realisation that I am not respected and valued much by the government and the parents of my students is soul-crushing.

    The safety precautions currently at place in schools are largely pointless and ineffective, and everyone knows this. Secondary students interact freely with friends from other classes outside of schools, yet politicians pretend that classes are truly isolated from each other. Many parents make no attempt to prevent their teens from going to parties and social gatherings with friends, and even younger students have siblings in other classes. The government’s refusal to allow secondary school teachers to be vaccinated even as teachers are required to return to classrooms is putting the health and lives of teachers at risk.

    The pretence that measures in place actually make schools safe for the unvaccinated teachers is insulting. Politicians are too cowardly to say the simple truth, which is that the health and maybe lives of some teachers is now considered an acceptable sacrifice.

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A pupils sits a desk at a school in Wedemark, Lower Saxony, earlier this year.
A pupils sits a desk at a school in Wedemark, Lower Saxony, earlier this year. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Moritz Frankenberg