Schools in the Pandemic: Caught by the Omicron Wave – Politics

Are schools going to run out of students?

There are currently hardly any closed schools, despite the massive increase in the number of infections, especially among children and young people. Nationwide, ten schools were completely closed last week, that’s all the latest figures from the Conference of Ministers of Education (KMK). Since then, a few have been added, such as Baden-Württemberg reported on Wednesday three closed schools. So far, however, it has been a case-by-case basis. The proportion of schools that had to limit classroom teaching – for example by sending individual classes home – has increased significantly, from 2.4 to 6.5 percent. Conversely, this means: At 93.5 percent of German schools, all classes learned in face-to-face classes in the past week.

But where it says face-to-face teaching, it is far from normal. The number of schoolchildren infected with Corona doubled from the second to the third week of 2022, rising from 73,000 to almost 150,000. This corresponds to 1.5 percent of all schoolchildren. Another 210,000 were in quarantine. The numbers are now likely to be far higher. From Baden-Württemberg, for example, 13,000 infected students were included in the KMK statistics, on Wednesday there were already more than 24,000. A little more students were in quarantine, namely 28,000. They are distributed among around 2,900 of the 4,500 schools of the country. In other words: Almost two thirds of the schools in Baden-Württemberg are currently directly affected by Corona, some less, others more.

Anyone who talks to teachers these days hears a lot about frustration, resignation and being overwhelmed at different levels of escalation. There is talk of a state of emergency, with which one can come to terms as well as possible, of “sitting out the wave”, but also of “daily collapse”. One almost always hears that regulated classes are out of the question at the moment – not least because new students are missing almost every day and others are returning. There are children who have been sent home several times in the New Year alone because of an infection or a suspected case in their class. And there are classes in which only a handful of children are left.

In North Rhine-Westphalia, dozens of elementary schools symbolically raised the white flag on Wednesday. Berlin lifted the compulsory attendance earlier this week, as did a number of other countries before it. The Governing Mayor Franziska Giffey (SPD) said that this was the wish of many parents. She referred to the experiences of other countries. In Brandenburg and Saxony, compulsory attendance has been suspended for weeks, but only a small proportion of students make use of the right to stay at home. In Saxony, for example, it is 1.3 percent according to the Ministry of Education. “It’s all business as usual,” Giffey said. Jürgen Böhm, the federal chairman of the Realschule teachers’ association, described the suspension of compulsory attendance in Berlin as “surrendering to the pandemic”.

Are schools going to run out of teachers?

The number of teachers absent due to Corona has also risen sharply. Last week, 9,600 nationwide were infected, after 5,900 in the previous week. Another 5,600 were in quarantine. That corresponds to a total of 1.8 percent. In some countries there are significantly more. As of January 19, NRW, for example, reported 6,349 teachers who could not be used in face-to-face classes due to the pandemic: 4 percent. All of these numbers are likely to be outdated by now.

But how much does this affect schools? Ties Rabe, school senator in Hamburg, pointed out in a previous week Interview with the magazine Spiegel pointed out that a sick leave rate of ten percent in the teaching staff was not unusual. The failure rate in the cold months is otherwise “between eight and eleven percent”. Maike Finnern, chairwoman of the GEW education union, says the situation varies greatly from school to school. In some schools, significantly more teachers are currently absent, in individual cases 20 to 25 percent. “The situation is very tense,” says Finnern. Classes or schools that had to be sent home due to an acute shortage of teachers are not yet known to her this year. Because of an acute shortage of students, on the other hand, yes.

Will schools run out of tests soon?

In Germany, PCR tests are becoming scarce. On Monday, the federal and state governments therefore announced that they would prioritize – in favor of medical staff and high-risk patients. Conversely, this means: at the expense of all other areas of society, including schools. And this despite the fact that two members of the cabinet – Education Minister Bettina Stark-Watzinger (FDP) and Family Minister Anne Spiegel (Greens) – had previously called for children not to be ignored when prioritizing. The schools are assigned to the critical infrastructure for the duration of the quarantine – unlike now with the PCR tests. Students can usually take the free test after five days, teachers after seven.

Regular testing of students is the most important pillar on which the policy of open schools is based in pandemic times, alongside the obligation to wear masks and airing the classrooms. Accordingly, teacher representatives reacted angrily to the decision of the federal and state governments. Heinz-Peter Meidinger, President of the German Teachers’ Association, defendant For example, a “blatant contradiction”: Politicians protest that they absolutely want to keep the schools open, but duck when it comes to protecting the health of students and teachers. However, the lack of PCR testing does not affect all schools.

How important are PCR tests for schools?

In the test strategies of many federal states – Hamburg, Saxony, Schleswig-Holstein and Hesse, for example – PCR tests play no or only an indirect role. Rapid tests are used there for the regular tests at the schools, which usually take place three times a week. If there are positive results, they can also be checked using a quick test in Schleswig-Holstein, for example, but not in Hamburg and Saxony; there it happens with a PCR test outside of school.

Saxony wants to keep it that way, the Ministry of Culture reports that there are still enough PCR tests available. Hamburg, on the other hand, wants to use rapid tests to check positive tests in the future, as well as the so-called free test, which allows recovered students to return to class. The school authorities make no secret of the fact that they are only doing this reluctantly: “It is common knowledge that rapid tests are less reliable than PCR tests.” But the planned prioritization was “caught cold”.

In other federal states, including Bavaria and North Rhine-Westphalia, on the other hand, PCR tests are regularly used in primary and special schools, in the form of so-called pool or lollipop tests. A class forms a pool whose tests are collected and sent to the laboratory. Each child submits an individual sample, which is only evaluated if there is a positive result in a pool. The countries expect more reliable results and – lollipop in the mouth – easier handling that does not overwhelm primary school children, unlike self-tests, as many teachers report.

But the procedure is complex, according to the Ministry of Education, NRW recently carried out 400,000 tests per week. And it’s vulnerable to a lot of infections, like it is right now, because the labs can’t keep up. That has already been shown in the last few weeks, complains the President of the Teachers’ Association, Meidinger. Schools often had to wait days for results – with the result that infected children sit in the classes undetected.

Despite “minor time delays or restrictions”, the Bavarian Ministry of Health now says that the PCR pooling should be “maintained for as long as possible”. It’s still going, and a forecast of when that could change is “not seriously representable”. NRW School Minister Yvonne Gebauer (FDP), on the other hand, has already reacted. The pool tests should continue to exist, but without the individual samples. A positive pool is now checked by means of a quick test – but not in the test center, but in the school the next morning. “This procedure means accepting further infections,” says the GEW in North Rhine-Westphalia. “The test regime has literally collapsed in our elementary schools,” said Thomas Kutschaty, leader of the SPD parliamentary group in the North Rhine-Westphalia state parliament. The state school council threatened school strikes.

The anger at Gebauer is also great because she introduced the new rules almost overnight – just like Berlin the lifting of the obligation to be present. “The fact that such profound changes are still being communicated in this way after two years of the pandemic leaves the schools stunned,” says GEW boss Finnern. The hashtag #gebauerruecktret made it into the nationwide Twitter trend on Wednesday.

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