German schools start up again as Omicron cases rise

Children in multiple German states are returning to school this week after the Christmas break as concerns grow over a potential surge in Omicron cases.

Schoolchildren with masks in Bavaria
Schoolchildren wear masks in class in Würzberg, Bavaria. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Nicolas Armer

Schoolchildren are back at their desks this week in Germany, with students in every state except Thuringia required to be present at in-person classes. Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, Rhineland-Palatinate, Saxony, Brandenburg, and Berlin all began classes again on Monday, with other states starting up again in the next few days.

Virtual classes are still the rule in Thuringia until Wednesday, when schools can decide for themselves whether to open for in-person classes.

The return to school comes as Omicron cases continue to rise in Germany. On Monday, 3,524 Omicron cases were reported by the health authorities – an increase of 13 percent compared to the previous day. 

Since November 15th, when laboratories started testing for the variant, the Robert Koch Institute has recorded 30,325 confirmed or suspected Omicron infections.

There are fears that close contact in classrooms and insufficient protection measures could cause schools to become a breeding ground for the highly transmissible varient – but state education ministers are determined to keep in-person teaching in place for the time being.

Masks are a ‘must’

On Monday, Germany’s new Education Minister, Bettina Stark-Watzinger of the Free Democrats, tweeted that in-person classes were a question of preserving equal opportunities for students, and that everything needed to be done to keep schools open.

READ ALSO: State by state: Where children in Germany can get vaccinated against Covid

To this end, the city-state of Berlin plans to give schoolchildren three free Covid-19 tests per week to facilitate face-to-face teaching, with vaccinated children exempt from this requirement.

Alongside frequent testing, federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach told the Bild am Sonntag newspaper that masks are an “absolute must” in schools. “An infected person’s viral load is lower with the Omicron variant, so masks work better,” he said.

A debate has flared up in recent days between teachers’ unions, who have called for schools not to remain open “at any cost”, and paediatricians, who have emphasised the importance of in-person teaching.

Speaking to the Ärzte Zeitung, Thomas Fischbach, president of the Professional Association of Paediatricians and Adolescent Doctors (BVKJ), called on politicians to avoid school closures for a long as possible. 

READ ALSO: German politicians float shorter quarantine times for Omicron wave

“There is a clear and unmistakable commitment from politicians to consider school closures – if at all – as the very last option,” said Fischbach. “We insist on that commitment.” 

State education ministers will meet via videoconference on Wednesday to evaluate the situation in German schools, before the main meeting between federal and state governments on Friday to discuss new pandemic-related rules.

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Germany to charge €3 for rapid Covid tests

Germany is set to end free rapid Covid tests for all from July. In future they will cost €3.

Germany to charge €3 for rapid Covid tests

Vulnerable groups, however, will still be able to get the tests, known as Bürgertests, free of charge under the plans.

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach said: “I will make no secret of the fact that I would have liked to have continued the free citizenship tests for all.”

However, Lauterbach said the taxpayer-funded testing strategy is costing an average of a billion euros per month.

“The truth is – unfortunately, we can’t afford that in the tight budget situation that awaits us in autumn,” he said. 

€3 contribution from July

The new testing regulations are to apply from the start of July.

The concept foresees expenditures of €2.7 billion by the end of the year. If the government had continued to offer free tests for all, the costs would have been around €5 billion.

The federal government also plans to reduce the amount that is given to the test centres per test – from the current €11.50 to €9.50.

In future, free rapid tests will continue to be available for vulnerable groups, including children up to five years of age, women at the beginning of pregnancy, and visitors to clinics and nursing homes.

The states will have the option of taking over the co-payment of €3 for other groups as well.

Lauterbach had previously spoken out in favour of continuing to provide free Covid tests for people with symptoms who suspect they have Covid, as well as before large events. 

READ ALSO: Germany to scrap free Covid tests for all 

Bürgertests should in future continue to be used specifically where they bring the greatest benefit,” said Lauterbach after the health ministers’ conference.

Lauterbach said he negotiated with Federal Finance Minister Christian Lindner to come up with the new testing system. 

“The use of taxpayers’ money will become more effective, as not everything can be paid by the federal government in the long run, because our possibilities have reached their limits,” said Lindner. 

Autumn Covid wave

Lauterbach also warned of a severe Covid wave in autumn.

“A very difficult time lies ahead,” the Health Minister said. He said the health ministers across Germany would take a joint approach to tackling the pandemic.

READ ALSO: German Health Ministry lays out autumn Covid plan