Thomas von Pluto is walking the empty corridors of his school in west Berlin, with blue tape lines on the grey linoleum floors.
Another day of teaching over, the 34-year-old deputy director of Berlin’s Robert Jungk secondary school has no idea how many rolls of tape he’s gone through for 1.5m floor markings.
His school, like all in the German capital, is in its third week back after the summer break and the only thing the same are the hives at the back of the yard, where bees produce school honey.
With little fuss, and a remarkable air of calm, he explains how the school staff and 950 pupils aged 11-19 have been reinventing their education on the fly.
“A big rethink is going on and we have to anticipate what will happen if things can’t continue this way. It hangs over everything,” says von Pluto.
Germany’s federal structure means 16 states all operate their own education systems, from choice of lesson material to holiday dates.
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern on the northeastern Baltic coast reopened schools on August 1st while Bavarian children don’t return until September 7st. Each has its own rules on distancing and face masks: some now require masks in classrooms, others just in corridors.
All returned states have had infections of pupils and teachers, quarantines and, in some cases, school closures. State authorities all insist that – despite a reported 400 school infection cases nationwide, and rising – the situation is manageable, for now.
The western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, home to 2½ million school-age children, says 97.8 per cent of its schools were open in their first week, August 12th-19th. Berlin’s school minister, Sandra Scheeres, insisted on Friday that 40 cases of the virus at city schools was not a cause for concern.
The GEW teachers’ union – with 280,000 members, one of the largest – is more pessimistic. It says Germany’s decentralised education structures have led to widespread confusion on responsibility and obligations.
“We’ve teachers who are diabetic and over 60 being told they have to teach, and risk-group parents worried their children will bring something home,” says Dr Ilka Hoffmann, GEW’s federal spokeswoman on schools. “We see no coherent strategy, just politicians responding to a business lobby demand to open schools so their employees can return to work.”
Berlin schools were given just three days to adapt a general hygiene plan to their buildings. The 1.5m distance rule no longer applies, allowing class sizes to return to normal, though most have abolished “streams” to minimise mixing of pupils.
Where possible, schools should have dedicated stairwells for each year and capacity limits in smaller rooms. Another rule is to ventilate classrooms between lessons. That’s no problem in Robert Jungk – an airy complex opened in 2001 – but impossible in other schools built in the 1970s, or even the 1870s.
Von Pluto says pupils have been generally good at wearing masks, though some need reminding. Extra school cleaning has been provided by the local authority, he adds, but the pandemic has highlighted long-existing weaknesses in digital learning.
That has created a huge, tiring learning curve for teachers: learning-by-doing digital education while co-ordinating timetables and teaching plans with colleagues in anticipation of another shutdown.
Berlin’s city-state government offers a cloud hub, but each school has to organise its own digital offerings – and finance it out of its own budget. The pandemic has pushed many schools to take the digital plunge, finding non-commercial messaging apps and teaching platforms that conform with EU data protection rules.
Many German teachers are still waiting for work computers and tablets, the GEW teaching union says, while some students without tablets are trying to do their homework on smartphones.
Berlin’s Robert Jungk school has not had Covid-19 cases to date and its deputy principal says the last weeks have shown how much in education is possible digitally – but also how irreplaceable everyone finds the analogue experience.
“Teachers and pupils were delighted to see each other back in school because teaching and learning simply don’t work without the social component,” he says. “This is a process of adjustment over a year, not just one week. That’s something we have to keep reminding ourselves.”