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EDUCATION

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

The school holidays are coming to an end in some German states. What does the school year look like as Germany battles to keep the Delta wave under control?

Masks, Covid jabs, tests and ventilation: How German children are returning to the classroom
Pupils in Kiel on the last day of school in June before the summer break. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Gregor Fischer

Pupils in three northern states will soon be back at school after the summer break. 

However, things are still not back to normal: masks and tests are compulsory – and there is still a dispute about air filters and vaccinations for older students. 

When are children back?

Children go back to school in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Schleswig-Holstein this Monday, while Hamburg follows on Thursday. Other states that started their vacations later will follow in the coming weeks. 

Germany is determined to get pupils back to face-to-face teaching. But there are fears that this will fuel another spike in Covid infections. 

The infection rate is rising steadily, although it is still at an overall low level.

READ ALSO: Germany at start of fourth Covid wave – but infections slowing 

Yet both parents and teacher representatives say a mix of in-person and online teaching will be needed – and possibly tougher Covid restrictions.

“There will foreseeably be alternating and remote teaching again in the new school year,” said Sabrina Wetzel from the board of the German Parents’ Council.

The president of the German Teachers’ Association, Heinz-Peter Meidinger, said: “We will have to reckon with further increases in the number of infections and will therefore need safety precautions for months to come.”

Here’s a look at what we can expect.

Face-to-face teaching

Classrooms are likely to fill up for the start of the school year. All three states are starting with face-to-face classes, although compulsory attendance in Hamburg remains suspended for now. Students who are at increased health risk or do not want to be tested for Covid can continue to learn at home, said the city state.

Mandatory masks

Face masks will continue to be a familiar sight in classrooms in the new school year. Hamburg is sticking with mandatory masks in education buildings. Schleswig-Holstein is keeping compulsory masks indoors for at least the first three weeks, but dropping them in schoolyards. Students in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania have to wear masks in class for at least the first two weeks.

Pupils wearing face masks in a Hamburg school in October 2020. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

Vaccination campaigns

Schleswig-Holstein wants to make it easy for older schoolchildren to get vaccinated. Starting August 19th, students aged 12 and older, as well as all employees, can be vaccinated against Covid by mobile teams of the Association of Statutory Health Insurance Physicians at the 250 school locations.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania plans to send mobile vaccination teams for 16 and 17-year-olds to schools in the second week. Hamburg does not plan to offer jabs at schools.

Germany’s vaccination committee (STIKO) has issued a general recommendation only for children aged over 12 to be vaccinated if they have an existing health condition. However, all children over 12 can decide to be vaccinated in consultation with a doctor and their parents. 

Regular testing

In Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg, the same applies to teachers and students: those who are not vaccinated or recovered from Covid must test themselves twice a week. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, all students and unvaccinated teachers must be tested twice a week.

Teacher representative Meidinger wants to see rapid tests every day, or at least three times a week. 

Ventilation

Arguments continue over air ventilation systems. The federal government has set aside funding for states to get more air filters for schools. But Schleswig-Holstein’s education minister Karin Prien said the funding so far is only for rooms that have are poorly ventilated, rather than upgrading all systems.

Meidinger said he fears that of 650,000 classrooms in Germany, only one in 10 will be equipped with mobile air filters by the time school starts.

Parents’ representative Wetzel said: “Stationary systems in particular, which may remove virus-laden air and passively transport in new air, are good, but also costly to install.”

Hamburg, meanwhile, is pressing ahead: by the time the autumn holiday starts on October 4th, every classroom there should have an air filtration system. In Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, there is a funding programme for air filtration units and CO2 measuring devices, with most school boards opting for the latter.

Online learning

Germany vowed to step up its digital and e-learning offering for children after the pandemic exposed major digital holes in the German education system.

READ ALSO: Digital upgrade: How Germany. plans cheap Internet access for all school pupils

However, Wetzel said things haven’t improved as much as they could have.

“Unfortunately, the provision of students with digital equipment is not yet as far along as it should be,” she said.

“Teachers have become much better at using video conferences and digital tools,” Meidenger said, but he laments that just under half of schools still don’t have fast Internet.

“Compared to the situation a year ago, we have more tools today, such as rapid tests, to increase safety at schools,” he added.

For the new school year, Wetzel wants to see authorities avoid blanket school closures if infections spike. “Some schools have very good safeguards, others don’t – that should play a role,” she said. 

How are schools helping children catch up?

Learning under more difficult conditions has set many students back. Schleswig-Holstein is trying to close the gaps with a “learning opportunities programme” that runs throughout the year. For weaker students, 20,000 education vouchers have been made available.

During the summer vacations, there were 1,100 vacation learning groups in Hamburg to help students catch up.

Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania education is hoping for student teachers and retired teachers to assist in teaching to help children catch up. There are also funds for private tutoring.

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COVID-19 RULES

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

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

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

READ ALSO: Will Germany get rid of masks on public transport?

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation

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