‘Premature plan’: Row on opening schools and Kitas intensifies in Germany

Schools and Kitas around Germany have been reopening - but a row has broken out over both the speed and strictness at which they're doing so.

'Premature plan': Row on opening schools and Kitas intensifies in Germany
Children at a Kita in Schwerin, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania on May 20th after it reopened on May 18th. Photo: DPA

In some states, such as Thuringia, all primary school students will return to the classroom at the same time, with municipalities able to decide for themselves if social distancing requirements should be put in place.

READ ALSO: State by state: When are schools and Kitas around Germany reopening?

Yet politicians and researchers have warned against a quick return to normality amid uncertainty about how the virus can spread among children.

“The truth is that we currently have a situation which is being studied, and that does not allow any real conclusions to be drawn about the extent to which children contribute to the spread of the virus,” Health Minister Jens Spahn told the newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine on Thursday. 

“There are very different evaluations – and that makes it particularly difficult to make political decisions.”

Spahn pointed out that new scientific knowledge about the virus was available almost daily. This also forces politicians to change assessments and adapt new measures.

READ ALSO: When and how will Germany's daycare centres reopen?

“The areas of kindergarten and primary school are particularly difficult,” he said.

Slowly reopening – but huge differences among states

In order to contain the spread of coronavirus, all of Germany's 16 state states closed schools and day-care centers (Kitas) in mid-March. 

In the meantime, school operations are being gradually ramped up around the country, but there is no uniform procedure on when pupils can return to the classroom or daycare.

Last Monday, Saxony was the first state in Germany to reopen primary schools and daycare centres at limited capacity. Instead of relying on small groups and distance rules, groups and classes are separated from each other.

Schleswig-Holstein also decided on Wednesday that all primary school children there should go back to the classroom from June 8th on a daily basis.

Starting in mid-June, Saxony-Anhalt is also aiming to have a full-class operation for primary school pupils again. In Baden-Württemberg this is planned from the end of June.

Full day-care centre openings are also on the horizon, with many states planning a full opening by start of summer holidays on June 29th.

READ ALSO: State by state: When (and how) will Germany's schools reopen again?

Yet the trade union for education and science (GEW) considers the health of educators and teachers to be at risk through the states' “premature” move to reopen.

The plans are considered premature, said GEW state chair Astrid Henke. The larger the group of children, the greater the danger to the health of the educators, she said. 

Children at a Kita in Schriesheim, Baden-Württemberg washing their hands on May 18th. Photo: DPA

“People should continue to keep a distance of 1.5 metres between themselves. However, this should not apply to 25 children in primary school classes that are often too small and difficult to ventilate. What a contradiction,” said Henke.

The President of the German Teachers' Association, Heinz-Peter Meidinger, also warned against resuming full school operations.

“This requires a completely new hygiene and health protection plan, which cannot simply be pulled out of a hat”, Meidinger told the Passauer Neue Presse on Thursday.

If distance rules were to be dispensed with and all pupils brought back into the classroom, breathing masks in class, comprehensive testing, small study groups throughout the school day and regular ventilation would be necessary.

“The current hygiene concept of the Conference of Education Ministers would have to be completely revised,” said Meidinger.

'A lost generation'

The German Children's Aid Association, on the other hand, warned of serious consequences for children and young people if schools and Kitas were not to reopen completely soon.

“We must not allow the collateral damage to grow,” President Thomas Krüger told Die Welt on Thursday. 

“The lack of the familiar teaching and learning environment is a serious interference with the living environment and the fundamental rights of children, which also impairs their psycho-social development.”

There is also the fear of disadvantages they carry on later on in life to the labour market.

“We will have to deal with a lost generation if we do not quickly open up schools and day-care centres completely,” said Krüger.

The Left Party (Die Linke) reiterated its call for a summit meeting with Chancellor Angela Merkel before the summer break. 

“A key political goal for the coming weeks should be to ensure that schools and daycare centres throughout Germany can resume regular operations by the end of the summer break,” faction leader Dietmar Bartsch told the daily Neue Osnabrücker Zeitung.

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Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Since the start of Germany’s Oktoberfest, the incidence of Covid infections in Munich has risen sharply. Though a connection with the festival can’t yet be proven, it seems likely.

Munich sees sharp rise in Covid cases after Oktoberfest

Two weeks after the start of Oktoberfest, the Covid numbers in Munich have more than tripled.

On Sunday, the Robert Koch Institute (RKI) reported an incidence of 768.7 for the city of Munich, though updated figures for the end of the festival are not expected until later in the week. Usually, on weekends and public holidays, there is a delay in reports.

In the entire state of Bavaria, the incidence value on Sunday was 692.5.

According to Munich’s public health officer, Beatrix Zurek, bed occupancy in Munich hospitals has also increased. Two weeks ago, 200 beds in Munich were occupied by Covid patients, whereas there are now around 350.

Though a relationship between the sharp rise in infections with Oktoberfest, which ended on Monday, can’t be proven at the moment, it seems very likely, according to experts. A significant increase in Covid incidences has also been shown at other public festivals – about one and a half weeks after the start. 

READ ALSO: Germany’s famed Oktoberfest opens after two-year pandemic hiatus

After a two-year break due to the pandemic, around 5.7 million visitors came to this year’s Wiesn according to the festival management – around 600,000 fewer than at the last Oktoberfest before the pandemic in 2019, when there were 6.3 million.

Federal Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) took to Twitter to comment on the rise in incidence in Munich during the Oktoberfest. “This would not have been necessary if self-tests had been taken before admission,” he said.

“Compared to the price of a measure of beer, €2-3 (for tests) wouldn’t have mattered,” he said.

Even before the start of the Wiesn, he had spoken out in favour of people taking voluntary self-tests. Lauterbach stressed that now is the time for special measures against Covid.

“The development shows what will happen if the states wait too long with the mask obligation in indoor areas,” he added.

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

In neighbouring counties, where many Oktoberfest visitors came from, the number of Covid cases has also risen noticeably.  Beatrix Zurek said that it is unclear, however, how much of a role Oktoberfest played in these figures, as people are currently much more active socially overall, with concerts and other events also taking place throughout the state.

Christoph Spinner, an infections specialist at Munich’s Klinikum, has urged people not to be alarmed by the rising numbers.

“We had expected rising incidences here. We knew that there could be a doubling, tripling, even quadrupling,” he said.

He said that this is no cause for concern, as many people have been vaccinated or have also recovered from previous Covid infections, so any new infections are therefore usually mild.

The virologist advises people over 60 or with pre-existing conditions to get a second booster vaccination, but otherwise said people shouldn’t be alarmed by the rising incidences.