Hamburg says Covid masks must continue in schools after ‘superspreader’ investigation

Students sit in a Hamburg classroom.
Students sit in a Hamburg classroom. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Marcus Brandt
The city state of Hamburg analysed a 'superspreader' event to find out how major outbreaks can happen in schools. Health experts are now calling for Covid masks to remain mandatory in classrooms.

As The Local has been reporting, some German states are getting rid of the mandatory mask requirement for pupils in schools. 

However, the health department of Hamburg says face masks should remain in place following an investigation into a so-called ‘superspreader’ event.

A Covid-outbreak at the Heinrich Hertz School in Hamburg-Winterhude in September 2020 resulted in 33 students and three employees testing positively for Covid-19. A total of 240 pupils, 40 teachers and more than 90 family members of those infected had to quarantine. 

It was considered one of Germany’s first major Covid spreading events in an educational setting since schools reopened after the first Covid lockdown in spring 2020. 

Experts have now traced the start of the outbreak back to a member of the teaching staff. 

READ ALSO: The Covid rules you need to know for the new school term

How did they research the outbreak?

The Hamburg Public Health Department launched the investigation into the outbreak at the school which includes a Gymnasium and Stadtteilschule, along with the University Medical Centre Hamburg-Eppendorf and the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) for disease control. 

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“Sound knowledge of the exact dynamics of Covid-19 school outbreaks as a basis for effective safety concepts in the pandemic is essential for school operations,” said the seven-page final report now submitted by the health office.

The authorities analysed the PCR samples of those infected, and checked to see if classrooms were sufficiently ventilated. Researchers also interviewed pupils, their parents and staff in order to be able to retrace the chains of infection.

The investigation revealed that the outbreak could be traced back to a member of the teaching staff. According to the report, this person infected 23 pupils and another staff member during two teaching sessions. The person was wearing a cotton material face mask. The young people were not wearing masks because it was not required at that time.

The next day, the teacher with Covid-19 taught in two more school classes and infected four more children. On that day, the teacher also wore a mask and tried to keep at least 1.5 metres away from other people, the report says. After a “feeling of sickness appeared”, the member of staff finished the second lesson and left the school.

READ ALSO: Three German states relax Covid mask rules in schools

‘Keep masks mandatory’

The health department said that due to authorities acting quickly, only a few close family members were infected. “Spread to other classes or buildings in the school was prevented, as was any spread of the virus to the general population,” the report concludes.

For future, the health authority appealed for German school pupils and staff to keep wearing mandatory masks indoors “as long as the incidence and vaccination coverage rates do not allow the overall situation to ease”.

Likewise, ventilation should continue, either through open windows or through “modern ventilation systems”.

“The report provides important information on possible chains of infection in the community institution of schools,” said state school councillor Thorsten Altenburg-Hack.

At the same time, the report makes it clear that “school operations in Hamburg are much safer today than they were last year”, he said.

Vaccination offers to school staff and people over 12, the mandatory wearing of masks indoors and regular testing are preventing these kinds of “superspreader” events, he said. 


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