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How German Students Have Been Back At School Since Spring, While Missourians Are Just Returning

A mask sits on a desk at a primary school in Weimar, Germany Oct. 15, 2020. Students are required to wear masks in the hallways and playground but not while sitting in class. If coronavirus cases increase in the community or are found in the school, then tighter restrictions are implemented.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
A mask sits on a desk at a primary school in Weimar, Germany. German students are required to wear masks in the hallways and on the playground but not while sitting in class. If coronavirus cases increase in the community or are found in the school, then tighter restrictions are implemented.

Editor’s note: Ryan Delaney’s reporting from Germany is supported by the Pulitzer Center.

ERFURT, GERMANY — It’s halfway through the fall semester, and many students in the St. Louis and Kansas City areas are just now trickling back into classrooms. Thousands are still learning from home. Meanwhile, in most of Europe, schools have been open since August with students attending in person daily.

A robust public health system, hygiene measures and targeted quarantines of students and staff exposed to the coronavirus get the credit. But that early success could soon be put to the test as cold weather arrives along with a resurgence of cases of the coronavirus.

St. Louis Public Radio’s Ryan Delaney is in Germany this month to report on how that country handles keeping its schools open. He spoke with KCUR’s Elle Moxley about what teaching and learning look like there.

Elle Moxley: What have you been seeing in German classrooms so far?

Ryan Delaney: It looks like school, it looks a lot like normal school, maybe with just some masks. You know, kids here started returning to classrooms back in April and May. And at that point, there were a lot of restrictions such as reduced class sizes and masks and social distancing. But after the summer vacation holidays, students returned to pretty much normal school, just they have to wear masks when they're up walking around the hallways, but classes are full. It's also worth noting that teachers here in most parts of Germany can get tested at school, usually about every other week. I also got to visit a kindergarten, and that really just looked like normal kindergarten — no attempts to keep kids apart or not let them share toys. Just kindergarteners being kindergarteners.

Moxley: I've been reporting on Missouri students having to quarantine because they were exposed at school. How is Germany handling positive cases in the classroom?

Delaney: There have been students and teachers who have tested positive at schools all over Germany, but no major outbreaks or spreading of the virus has been blamed on schools. So what usually happens is if a student or a teacher is positive for the virus, or suspected to be, that student will have to stay home. Or if school and the health department thinks that a whole class, or I've heard even about grades, an entire grade level having to stay home for a week or two until students can be tested and come back to the classrooms.

Moxley: You said earlier that most German schools are actually not requiring masks in classrooms, just in the hallways. Every epidemiologist I've spoken to in Kansas City though tells me that masks are really important to stop the coronavirus from spreading in schools. Dr. Jennifer Schuster at Children's Mercy Hospital has been working with the districts here in Kansas City.

Dr. Jennifer Schuster: As these schools, some of these schools, have gone back to in-person schooling, what we are hearing from them is that the risk mitigation strategies are working.

Moxley: So if German students don't have to mask at their desks and classrooms are full, how are German schools keeping them safe?

Delaney: A big part of the strategy in schools here is air circulation. Airing out or ventilating a room is already a big part of German culture, and now it's officially part of the country's efforts to combat the coronavirus. Windows need to be open for a few minutes every 20 minutes. One teacher told me that he even sets a timer on his phone. This gets mixed reviews from students who have to sit at their desks during class. It's October now, and it's getting colder. Christin Reckers, a student at a secondary school that I visited in Osnabruck, says that it's particularly uncomfortable in some of the mobile classrooms that they have there.

Christin Reckers: They're very cold, and sometimes the heating does not work, especially in our English class. So we are freezing, basically.

Moxley: That sounds chilly and also like something that schools here might not be able to do because the windows don't open. Finally, Ryan, I know I've heard cases of COVID-19 are on the rise in Europe. Has that affected German schools yet?

Delaney: Not yet, but several big cities around Germany are now in red zones. So nightlife and gatherings are being restricted. So far government leaders still say that keeping schools open is a priority, but schools are starting to go on two-week fall breaks, and some of the teachers I've spoken with are preparing, at least mentally, that schools won't fully reopen again after the breaks. Nele Keller is a teacher at that school in Osnabruck, and she's kind of preparing for the worst but hoping for the best.

Nele Keller: Because I've got this aim that our school keeps being opened, and I want the students to be here because this is the job I want to do. And I want the students to be here because when they are at home, I had so many students who had really big problems at home.

Delaney and Moxley are reporting on the impact of the coronavirus on German and Missouri schools through an Education Writers Association fellowship with additional support from the Pulitzer Center.

Follow Elle on Twitter: @ellemoxley

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.