Schools in the corona pandemic: remedial action needed

The situation at schools in the pandemic continues to be unsatisfactory. There are problems with the implementation of hygiene regulations and digitalization.

Math lessons with tablet. It doesn’t always work as well as it seems to here Photo: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa

Experts and those who need to know often like to say that the corona pandemic has made many weak points "in society" or "in the system" even more apparent, bringing them into public focus as if under a burning glass. Now, shortly before the fall vacations, which begin in most federal states on Monday, in the school year 1 AD, two topics have emerged on which the school society in Germany has an increased need for discussion.

One topic is hygiene regulations, the other digitization. In both areas, schools are actually at acute risk of transferring. And that’s despite the quick rescue money from the federal government for digital pop-up infrastructure à la student tablets, teacher laptops and service email addresses. The hygiene rules are designed by the states on their own. They polarize students, parents and colleagues.

Just as outside the schoolyards, the faction of skeptics stands firmly against the faction of admonishers and the especially cautious. Some give each other tips on how to sew the masks – currently only compulsory in Schleswig-Holstein, even in class – for the child as flimsily as possible ("So that your children don’t suffocate!"). The others question the planned class trip at the parents’ evening, no matter how elaborate the hygiene concept is.

It is rather astonishing that – as far as can be seen – everything has gone so well so far. Instead of school closures across the board, only individual classes are quarantined. Following a nationwide survey of education ministries at the end of September, ARD came to the following conclusion: Brandenburg and North Rhine-Westphalia were the frontrunners with six and five completely closed schools respectively, followed by Bavaria with four schools in the snapshot.

The task sheet sent by e-mail alone does not make a digital lesson

All other German states had to close a maximum of one or two schools, and many had to close none at all. In Berlin, according to the Senate Department for Education, 74 learning groups are in quarantine, and 92 students and 27 teachers have tested positive. The principle of contact tracing and selective closure seems to be working. Let’s not have a second lockdown, that was the goal of the state education ministers. For the time being, it is working.

However, one wonders why. Because the maxim of groups ("cohorts"), which according to the guidelines of the Conference of Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs should not mix as much as possible, is in fact wastepaper in many places in everyday school life. In Berlin, elementary school principals and parents say in unison that the cohort command is over by the afternoon at the latest, when the children in the after-school care center meet in the schoolyard due to a lack of space and staff.

According to research by the dpa news agency, 10 percent of school buildings in North Rhine-Westphalia cannot be properly ventilated. In Berlin, on the other hand, a "school construction offensive" has been underway for years to make ailing windows and school toilets reliably usable again.

Since a "screening" of the Berlin districts responsible for their school buildings four years ago revealed how enormous the need for renovation actually is, the friction between the districts (school authorities) and the state level (financiers) has been somewhat reduced. But there was never any real steam on the boiler, and in view of the economic imbalance, it is already clear that some windows are likely to remain broken for the foreseeable future.

School renovation neglected for years

Corona thus makes visible what has been going wrong for a long time: the nationwide shortage of personnel, especially among educators and especially in the all-day sector, and the school renovation that has been slept through for many years. Now, the lack of soap in many school toilets and the afternoon after-school program do not seem to be as relevant for the spread of the virus as feared. Politicians have played the game of risk, and parents and students have won.

After all, this is something we hear from school principals time and time again: If the structure of face-to-face instruction breaks down, then we will lose the weaker students in particular, who are equipped with fewer resources from home, specifically: tutoring. Which brings us to the second issue that Corona has written big on the schools’ wallboard: digitization. You just don’t catch up on what you’ve missed in 20 years, you hear principals sigh.

Indeed, the question is: Which of the many loose ends do you pick up first? The instant money for tablets isn’t bad, of course, but it’s of little use if teachers don’t get in-service training. The emailed assignment sheet does not a digital classroom make. Service laptops and digital learning platforms are of little use if schools don’t have reliable broadband Internet.

Or when they are left in the dark about data protection and which chat programs are allowed. At a school in Kassel, Hesse, 3,000 laptops were ordered from the fresh Corona money and not picked up because there is no one at the schools who has time to set them up. It is clear that the digital offensive will not succeed without full-time IT support staff at the schools.

Perhaps the most important thing that can be said before the second Corona winter is that we now know exactly what needs to be done. Everyone will have to be a little patient, of course. That’s how it is when you sleep for a long time. It takes a little while to wake up properly.