German Schools under Corona

How did schools in Germany deal with COVID-19? It is quite difficult to get an overview of the state of affairs while you are still in the middle of the process. As a teacher in small-town  Baden-Württemberg, I may not be able to convey an exact picture of the whole of Germany. However, I hope that I will be able to give some insights into our life with the virus and provide valuable background information. Nonetheless, it is in the nature of things that my account is incomplete, biased and, in my view, probably flawed.

In order to understand the effect the coronavirus had on German schools, I should give you some context. The German school system is not centralized. It may be under federal control, but the education systems still differ from state to state. Summer holidays start early in northern Germany (Schleswig-Holstein and Lower Saxony) and come rather late in the southern states (such as Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg). 90% of all students attend public schools. One might think that a country as technologically advanced and prosperous as Germany is excellent in education. In fact, social class and parental income have a strong impact on student performance. Even if you only consider the member states of the EU, Germany ranks second in terms of social injustice. In addition, Germany's per capita educational expenditure is dramatically low compared to many other OECD countries.

When the lockdown came, schools in Germany were clearly not prepared for a challenge of such epic proportions. Prior to the arrival of the virus, most schools had not used any kind of learning platform. Moreover, teachers were largely unqualified when it came to distance learning. As is usually the case in Germany, the public quickly started to compare their schools’ performance with schools in South Korea, Denmark or Norway, and especially New Zealand. And like any school system “belied with false compare”, we were destined to lose. Unlike Australia or New Zealand, Germany is densely populated and has never felt the urge to set up servers for distance learning. Unlike Denmark and other Scandinavian countries, Germany does not provide their schools with free resources for online learning. Teachers mostly have to buy their own hardware if they want to be up to date. There is no denying the fact that students are usually better equipped with current software and fancy electronic gadgets than we are. To add insult to injury, some parents kept pushing us to use video chat tools to interact with our students.

Why that wasn’t always possible is connected to the EGDPR. According to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, staff at public schools are legally obliged not to work with WhatsApp, Facebook, Zoom, Skype, or any other programs that store and process student data on servers outside the EU. You think that’s crazy? Hold your breath for a moment and think of what a malevolent intel agency might be able to do with your data. Also, ask yourself why teachers should pass on students’ data to companies that make money with data-mining? However, commercial communication tools are often more user-friendly and more efficient. In addition, both students and teachers regularly use these channels for private purposes. Also, most parents use such programs for work and business. No wonder that parents keep complaining if German teachers are reluctant to illegally use these programs; all the more if important policy makers in the field of education (no offense) fail to explain in public that we must not violate European privacy laws.

In the meantime, national hysteria had reached its peak. After people had stuffed their pantries with canned beans and flour, their fridges with packages of yeast, their bathroom cabinets with toilet paper, things became absurd. For a few weeks, it felt like an apocalypse of the modern world. As if things were getting out of hand, becoming uncontrollable. It might be a cliché, but Germans detest losing control. While most states refrained from imposing a total curfew on their citizens, we were asked to protect the elderly and stay at home. While some people celebrated togetherness and solidarity, others resorted to ruthlessness. It has been reported there were fights over toilet paper. Some people called the police if their neighbours got together in groups larger than five. The darkest period in Germany’s modern history has supplied us with a term for that: “Blockwart-Mentalität”. “Snoop mentality” is but a poor translation for a term which is in fact untranslatable. For a few weeks, the EU dissolved into an array of egotistic nation states – closing borders, eying their neighbour states with suspicion. People started to argue about the best strategy against Corona.

Given all this anxiety and all those worries, teachers and students did a fairly good job – despite a few black sheep who would not bother much about the impending challenges and kept a low profile for the next weeks. Despite the fact that the final exams had to be postponed in many states, teachers were expected to prepare their senior students for the A-Levels (“Abitur”) and German high school diploma (“Realschulabschluss”). We were told to set our priorities so that graduation classes would be covered first. One of the next things to happen was that not only all concerts and informal get-togethers were cancelled, but also exchange trips and excursions. Students keep asking whether they will get a chance to go next year, but who knows?

In the next weeks, students witnessed an unprecedented explosion of media-related knowledge among teachers. Some teachers started to create video tutorials while others took to coding and wrote small quizzes. Admittedly, there was a small group of teachers who would simply scan their old worksheets and generously ignore their students’ submissions – but, as I said, it was only a small fraction of all teachers aboard. Moodle is a pretty common tool now, just like BigBlueButton, an open-source video conferencing tool that can be run on any server. Conferences are held online, grades are submitted via secure connections (SchoolCloud). However, there is also a downside to the rise of digital media. While some subjects are endowed with immense opportunities and a rich choice of tools and media (Maths, English), others lack sufficient resources (German). Producing your own material comes at a price – it takes awfully long to produce online quizes or instructional videos. Also, personal feedback is not always possible. If I had reserved only five minutes for every student in a week, I would have been pretty busy – in my case, these five minutes per student would have amounted to more than eight hours of extra work.

As all kinds of corona-related nonsense prospered online, I took the chance to offer my students classes on conspiracy theories which were usually great fun. It turned out that most students were immune against corona-related fake news – I was surprised to learn that younger kids were not so much affected by media-induced hysteria. I suppose it had become clear to them that kids and teenagers would not need to be afraid of COVID-19. Contrary to that, some of our seniors were rather depressed though; they viewed themselves as representatives of a “lost generation” as many of them saw their plans for their gap year crack and crumble.

However, the crisis had another positive effect on us teachers. In Germany, many teachers still work as lone wolves, preparing and teaching their classes independently and autonomously. In some subjects, cooperation is not always common practice. During these weeks of corona-related trouble, we received a very intense briefing in the power of teamwork. In addition, reading our colleagues assignments for our students, many of us realized there is a huge potential with regard to integrated learning. Let’s see what will become of it. If only video conferences were not so exhausting – I don’t know why, but regular teaching seems to be less stressful.

One other thing that came to my mind when teaching my online classes. Some schools, home and abroad, use advanced didactic technology, issue tablets to their students and make them engage in virtual reality learning environments. According to the advocates of high-tech classrooms, their students’ performance should skyrocket impressively. As for now, we wait for evidence. During the lockdown, we could see some encouraging results. But we could also see that sensuality, physical response and human interaction matter so much more. As for now, it seems as if a virtual coach could neither kick your ass nor make you grow as a person.

I cannot generalize, but as far as I can tell, my students were quite willing to complete and submit their assignments. Of course, younger students were in a more difficult position than those in senior classes. Some kids seemed to have vanished entirely only to resurface after eight weeks doing nothing – usually, form teachers were busy calling them up to motivate them for their online classes. I rang up my students one after the other to get in touch which was probably good for both sides. I was told that many form teachers (whose job it usually is to look after the kids) did exactly the same. I was also talking to some parents. I would like to emphasize that, with a few notable exceptions, parents were rather patient and supportive. However, many dads and moms who had to stay home during the lockout noticed that their kids were struggling. Sometimes, they blamed us teachers and started criticizing our work. It was very common to answer some dad’s e-mail who accused a colleague of using the wrong color to underline the verbs in their worksheet, and, just after that, talk to a desperate mother who would see people die of COVID-19…!

What most of our students liked about the lockdown was that they could adapt the program to their own biorhythm – which usually meant to sleep in and stay up late (you should know that school normally starts at 7:30). Another thing most at least my students were rather pleased with: They could work as fast or as slowly as they wanted. In a classroom setting, this is not always the case.

After schools had finally reopened for grades 5 through to 11, many students (and also some teachers) felt a deep motivational slump. The government had made it pretty clear that nobody had to worry with regard to their academic careeers. Everybody would pass the year, there would be no test on the subject matter taught during the lockdown. If you are trained to work for the next exam and the final grades, it does not make much sense to work hard if it does not count in the end, does it?

Before schools were “rebooted” (a common metaphor in these parts), the management was required to set up hygiene plans for their students. Classes were split in halves so that a maximum of 16 students could attend classes. Yellow arrows taped to the floors signalled to the incoming students where they should walk. Singing was not encouraged. Also, dispensers with soap and disinfectants were installed on washroom walls. Every room had to be equipped with several sprayers for students to disinfect their desks after the last classes. With several teachers not being allowed to come to school and others confined to their jobs as chaperons, not all classes could be taught. P.E. and R.E. were dropped.

When my sixth graders returned to school, they were glad to escape their online classes; my ninth graders were rather annoyed to be find themselves in regular classrooms again; my junior students seemed perfectly relaxed and excessively tired. As social distancing was taken seriously, at least during classes, group work, jig saw method and other forms of cooperative learning were beyond all question. So, what was left was basically seatwork and lectures – something most teachers would not consider a satisfying teaching experience.

How will we proceed? What is there to do? We keep hearing all kinds of things. Some say life will be back to normal after the summer holidays – some say we will keep going with corona precautions. What we do see is an alarming tendency of populists far and wide to hijack the public discourse on corona. What we do see are politicians who seem to gamble with our health and our students’ welfare. What we do see is a large group of people who think COVID-19 is a hoax and protest against measures they take for an infringement of civil liberties. For a while, we will keep on wearing our masks. For us teachers, I suppose, new challenges will come. We will have to cut down drastically on subject matter. We will have to support our students, emotionally and academically, but we should also stand up against isolationism and populism. All in all, we had better be on the watch. It ain’t over yet.