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Education union raises concerns around reopening of schools

A German education union has voiced its concern at proposals to reopen schools closed during the COVID-19 pandemic. Issues to safeguard educator and student health include addressing how social distancing will operate in classrooms, the wearing of face masks, and infection prevention in facilities and public transport.

The Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft (GEW), a member of Education International in Germany, has urged caution in response to recommendations by the Science Academy Leopoldina on the reopening of schools in the near future. If educational institutions are to reopen on a phased basis, the focus has to be on infection prevention and the health of teachers and students. That is according to Marlis Tepe, chairwoman of GEW and Vice-President of Education International. She cautioned against measures that would ignore concerns about infection protection as well as hygiene and cleanliness.

“The recommendations are not very helpful because they are not very practical,” she said. “Many suggestions ignore the reality of our schools and do not honour their educational mission, focusing only on transitions and examinations.”

Before the education facilities reopen, there must be a sufficiently long lead time to allow governments to assess the situation, perform checks, and have their decisions approved by health departments. “The recommendation to wear protective masks must be implemented, i.e. masks must be made available in sufficient numbers,” added the GEW head.

Avoid deepening social inequalities

According to the union, the proposals do not offer any help in dealing with social inequalities. “If schools and daycare centres are only opened to ‘healthy and mobile’ children and adolescents, additional inequalities will result,” stressed Tepe. In addition, the issue of transporting students to school remains unresolved, with a considerable risk of contracting COVID-19 on public transport.

Another issue is that adequate social distancing within schools is not possible in many facilities due to a lack of space. As most classrooms are very narrow, 15 pupils cannot – as recommended – keep a distance of at least 1.5 metres.

Besides space, a lack of teachers is another issue. A high percentage of teachers and educators belong to risk groups, and shift operation is not possible in many schools. Pupils and their parents could also belong to risk groups, said the GEW.

According to Tepe, securing the learning and teaching environments to prevent infections should “not fail because of a lack of money”.

Bypass exams

Given the inequalities in access to online learning resources, internet connection, and available study space at home for many students, the German union and its national confederation, the Deutscher Gewerkschaftsbund (DGB), are calling for an exemption of final exams, including A-levels. This would be in line with decisions made in other European countries, like the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. “Teachers should be able to mark their pupils according to the exams they have already passed this year, and authorities should be willing to trust teachers in their evaluation,” Tepe concluded.

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