Covid-19: Germany faces its greatest health experiment as millions return to schools

Staggered German back-to-school push is welcomed by some and criticised by others

 Angelina Bojahr (C) wears a  mask during an enrolment ceremony in the Lankow elementary school in Schwerin, Germany, last week. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

Angelina Bojahr (C) wears a mask during an enrolment ceremony in the Lankow elementary school in Schwerin, Germany, last week. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA


Germany begins its greatest ever public health experiment on Monday, as 3.5 million children in four federal states, Berlin, Brandenburg, Schleswig-Holstein and North Rhine-Westphalia, return to their classrooms for the first time in five months.

After a soft start last week in two smaller regions, however, Germany’s staggered back-to-school push across its 16 federal states has divided opinion among teachers, parents, the business lobby – and even schoolchildren.

Most states’ reopening rulebooks have considerable common ground on hygiene measures, social distancing rules and reorganisation of classes into age cohorts. But disagreement remains over face masks: 2.5 million schoolchildren in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia will be obliged to wear masks indoors, including in the classroom.

Their counterparts in Berlin, Brandenburg and Schleswig-Holstein, meanwhile, are obliged to wear their masks in corridors, cloakrooms and toilets. Schleswig-Holstein’s education minister has confused matters by insisting masks should be worn at all times – but that this was a recommendation and not a rule.

Berlin state education minister Sandra Scheeres said she was following the majority of states in not requiring mask use in the classroom.

“Paediatricians and child psychologists have also spoken out against a classroom mask obligation,” she said, adding that voluntary use could be agreed between schools and parents.

Schoolchildren in the southern state of Bavaria, which has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, don’t return to school until September 7th. With no decision yet on masks, a teachers’ union there has warned that “a lesson with masks is not a real lesson”.

“If infection numbers rise, one has to decide what’s best,” said Simone Fleischmann, president of one Bavarian teachers’ union, BLLV. “Lessons for children at the same time with masks or lessons with half-full classes and social distance, but without a mask.”


Many schools across the country have complained of belated or vague proposals on reopening and a lack of clarity on contingency plans if Covid-19 clusters force renewed closures.

“I sense a certain amount of magical thinking going on among the politicians and officials that this can be managed,” said one Berlin teacher to The Irish Times. “Many teachers in our school think we will be closed again by the [October] autumn holidays, and this is about giving authorities more time to develop online teaching measures.”

That in turn raises uncomfortable questions over readiness for digital teaching. A German teachers’ union study suggested that, although its members are forbidden from using private computer equipment for lessons, just 10 per cent have been given adequate school equipment for online teaching.

Germany’s business lobby has welcomed as overdue the return to regular lessons in schools, calling it a sensible balance between “health protection and a revival of business”.

“It’s in the interests of business owners and their employees that their children are once again being taught and minded in a reliable way,” said three business lobby groups in a joint statement.

Obligatory coronavirus tests began on Saturday for Germans returning from trips to 130 so-called Covid-19 risk countries. Daily infection rates, which had risen above 1,000 new cases in recent days, dropped to 555 over the weekend.

News Digests

Stay on top of the latest newsSIGN UP HERE