Starting school is a huge milestone, one our 6-year-old has been excited about for months. Yet, as it happens, this big event of her life is taking place in the most extraordinary of circumstances. She’s enrolling in school in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.
While this has not dampened her enthusiasm, everything is different this year.
Germany decided to start the new school year with full in-person lessons for everyone. This return to “normality” comes with a long list of measures and precautions that are different from one federal state to another*.
This is what our 6-year-old’s school day looks like in the times of a pandemic.
The first day of school
The first day of school for the 1st graders is a big celebration here in Germany. It’s usually attended by the extended family, there are speeches, songs, and performances.
As you may imagine, keeping up such traditions was not possible this year.
Most schools did a separate ceremony for each class of first graders. The ceremonies were short and only the parents could attend. We were fortunate that our school did the event outdoors, allowing each child to bring 4 guests.
The football field where the Einschulug took place was dotted with giant circles – one for each family to watch the event while keeping a safe distance from the others. Then the kids were briefly whisked off to their classroom for an activity while the families waited outside. An hour later, we headed home with our happy and excited daughter!
The everyday school life
In the mornings we bring Birdy to her designated school gate (each grade has a separate entrance and exit) and put on a mask to bring her to her building. It’s an exception made for 1st graders: parents are not allowed on the school grounds unless they have a prearranged appointment.
Mask or no mask?
In most schools here in Hamburg primary school kids need to wear masks in common areas like hallways and bathrooms. We are lucky to have a school that houses each grade in a different building, therefore the kids don’t need a mask.
Why is that?
This is where the concept of “cohorts” comes in. Children in the same cohort don’t need to keep a safe distance from one another, and they don’t need to wear masks when in each other’s presence. In the case of Hamburg, each grade, so for example, all 1st graders, is one cohort.
The cohorts can be kept apart from one another by different entrances to the school grounds, staggered breaks, different lunchtimes, separated areas of the schoolyard, and other measures.
Almost, but not exactly, like always
Birdy loves being in school and she doesn’t know a different school life than the current, pandemic one. In a way, it is easier for the first-graders – they wouldn’t know if they were missing out.
They do get some hints of a different reality, however. Like the music teacher explaining why there will be no singing in class. Or the sports teacher focusing on individual activities instead of team sports.
But by now these kids are pros at things like properly washing their hands and sneezing in their elbows. Their teacher putting on a face shield when walking around the class is perfectly normal. Not interacting with kids from other grades on the schoolyard is just how it is.
Is it cold or COVID?
Things may be running more or less smoothly at the moment, but many parents dread the upcoming winter. The list of coronavirus symptoms is long and quite unspecific, particularly so for kids. A running nose might still be okay, but combine it with tiredness, or a cough, or an elevated temperature, and your child is not allowed to go to school.
Have you ever counted how many times your kid gets a running nose or a cough in a typical cold season? I certainly haven’t, as normally these don’t count as serious enough to get a sick note from your pediatrician (I write about this German peculiarity here).
A child needs to be symptom-free for 48 hours before they are allowed back in school. So you either need to ride out the cold or present a negative COVID-19 test result.
On the bright side, currently getting your child tested for COVID-19 is easy and fast here in Hamburg. You just call a hotline and explain the situation and the symptoms. If they decide that a test is needed (which, for kids, is a low threshold), a doctor drops by on the same day to do the test and you receive the result 1-2 days later. Take note though: the whole household is under quarantine while waiting for the test result!
It’s a learning process
With rising infection numbers across the country, this status quo is likely to change sooner or later.
The schools are working hard to prepare plans for digital learning – something Germany as a whole is quite behind with. Meanwhile, the current safety measures of Hamburg schools are harshly criticized by parents and the opposition parties alike. One of the most frequent criticisms is that the cohorts are too large: one grade commonly has around 4-6 classes, each with over 20 kids. Another that there is a lack of concepts for successfully combining learning at school and learning at home.
It seems to me, that governments and schools all across the world face the same challenge during this pandemic:
How can we, with our limited human resources and preexisting infrastructure, provide a successful learning environment and ensure that disadvantaged children are not left behind? And, at the same time, how do we reduce the infection risk and keep the children and their families safe?
There is more than one path and it will take us a long time to fully understand what the successes and the failures will have been in the long-term.
How are schools reopening in your country? Please share in the comments!
* A note on reopening schools in Germany
Attending school is mandatory in Germany and homeschooling is illegal. During the pandemic, special exceptions are made for pupils who have health preconditions that would put them at risk.
While there are similarities, there can be no simple overview of Germany’s strategy for reopening schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each of the 16 federal states is doing its own thing. Not only does the summer break end at different times, but each federal state is also entirely in charge of hygiene and safety regulations for its schools.
For example, while Mecklenburg-West Pomerania in the North has had few COVID-19 cases and reopened with comparatively lax regulations, Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia are among the hardest-hit and will, e.g., require pupils to wear masks also during class.
Hamburg, where we live, is somewhere in the middle of these extremes.
Several federal states have started the new year and it took less than a week for the first school closures to come into effect.