Schools — here and abroad

A few days ago, I had the opportunity to talk to a Filipino school teacher in Bulacan and even had the chance to take a look at an empty classroom in the barangay school where copies of the learning material were kept for future distribution to the students. These copies of the individual chapters of the regular school books were neatly organized and piled up on the very tables children used to sit and learn at every day before the pandemic.

I was impressed and touched by the commitment of the teacher, who even contributed her private time and money to ensure that her students would receive the best possible education in the current challenging circumstances. She told me that she would usually take screenshots of the presentations she prepared and take print-outs to the students who don’t have the necessary electronic devices to participate in the online classes.

She asked me whether the schools in Germany were also closed, and I explained how different the situation in my home country is: Early in the pandemic, the German government had tasked a group of experts and representatives from teacher, parent and student bodies, as well as key decision makers, to develop guidelines on “Measures to Prevent and Control COVID Transmission in Schools.” The result of this working group are the so-called “S3 guidelines” that target the core issues and challenges in the current situation. The application of these measures and recommendations constitute an important component in Germany’s comprehensive crisis response that focuses on sustainable solutions.

In the decisions the German government has had to take in its ongoing crisis management, the question whether or not to open schools has always been a top priority. From very early on, flexible modules for blended learning had been introduced: downsizing the number of students per class, introducing a shift system that allows students to have face-to-face classes for at least a certain number of days per week – in addition to virtual modules, measures to ensure physical distancing and hygiene protocols as well as free swab tests for students and teachers.

School teachers, as a group, also have a high priority in Germany’s vaccination plan. The guiding principle in Germany is: If lockdowns are inevitable, schools and nurseries are the last institutions to close and the first ones to re-open. This approach requires a lot of flexibility and discipline from all stakeholders, but I am convinced it’s absolutely worth it as we just cannot afford a lost generation. Children are the future of our societies, and education and social development are essential goods.

Education is a powerful driver of development and one of the strongest instruments for reducing poverty and for improving health, gender equality, peace and stability. In fact, every single goal of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development requires adequate education to empower people with the knowledge, skills and values to live in dignity, build their lives and contribute to their societies.

In addition to the fact that schools are learning hubs and places of knowledge transfer, they are also places of social interaction, a world en miniature for our kids. Alongside their family homes, schools are the most important place where they learn to interact with other people, to solve conflicts and thus how to succeed in life.

Germany’s approach in this crisis is very much in line with the assessment of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which states that school closures have clear negative impacts on child health, social and psychological well-being, education and development. A recent survey of Germany’s prestigious University Medical Center in Hamburg-Eppendorf found that due to the closure of schools and the dominating virtual format of schooling, about one in three children suffer from psychological problems, anxiety, depressive symptoms or psychosomatic disorders.

As much as we, the grown-ups, had to get used to not shaking hands anymore when we meet, not to sit next to each other but with one seat apart, children have to learn it as well. It might be even more difficult for them, but it is essential in the fight against the pandemic. We would all like to see a quick return to the life we used to live before the pandemic. Certainly, an adjusted behavior will continue to be a requirement of the so-called new normal. We cannot evade this reality but we and our children have to train and practice the new rules in real-life situations in order to make them the new normal.

I am grateful that I had the chance to get a first-hand impression of the current situation of schools here in my host country. It demonstrated very vividly, how essential solidarity and multilateral cooperation are in order to overcome this crisis. Germany remains committed to a global solution to this pandemic.

No one is safe until everyone is safe. If we act together, in this spirit, we can all emerge stronger from this crisis.

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Anke Reiffenstuel is the Ambassador of Germany to the Philippines.

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