Masks in class? Many questions as Germans go back to school

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FILE -- In this Friday, March 13, 2020 photo a slogan on a chalkboard reads 'It's Corona Time' in an empty class room of a high school in Frankfurt, Germany, March 13, 2020. As Germanys 16 states start sending millions of children back to school in the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic, those used to the countrys famous Ordnung are instead looking at uncertainty, with a hodgepodge of regional regulations that officials acknowledge may or may not work. (AP Photo/Michael Probst, file)

BERLIN – Masks during class, masks only in the halls, no masks at all. Distance when possible, no distance within same-grade groups, no distance at all.

As Germany’s 16 states start sending millions of children back to school in the middle of the global coronavirus pandemic, the country’s famous sense of “Ordnung,” or order, has given way to uncertainty, with a hodgepodge of regional regulations that officials acknowledge may or may not work.

“There can’t, and never will be 100% certainty,” said Torsten Kuehne, the official in charge of schools in Pankow, Berlin’s most populous district where 45,000 students go back to school Monday. “We are trying to minimize the risk as much as possible.”

Germany has won plaudits for managing to slow the spread of the coronavirus quickly, efficiently and early, but the opening of schools is proving a new challenge as the country struggles to balance the concerns of anxious parents and children, skeptical scientists, worried teachers and overtaxed administrators.

Many around the world will be closely observing the real-life experiment offered in Germany to see what works and what doesn’t. U.S. President Donald Trump is pushing for American schools to reopen in person and on time even as the country nears 5 million confirmed coronavirus cases, and in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has stressed the government's moral duty to ensure children return to class next month -despite having the highest official death toll in Europe.

The U.N. said this week that as many as 100 countries have yet to announce a date for schools to reopen, and Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a possible “generational catastrophe” in education. He urged that restarting school be made a “top priority” once countries have the coronavirus under control.

Germany has seen some 217,000 confirmed cases and 9,200 deaths, and brought down a peak of some 6,000 new daily infections in March to the low hundreds. Numbers have been creeping back up, however, and topped the 1,000 per day mark in recent days for the first time in about three months.

Israel attempted a full reopening in May, at a time when the coronavirus was widely thought to have been beaten in the country, only to suffer new outbreaks that led to schools being shut down again and a surge in the spread of the virus nationwide. In South Africa, four grade levels were restarted in June but then closed back down when the country's virus cases surged.