German schools start up again as Omicron cases rise

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