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Schools In Germany Remain Open Amid A New Lockdown


To Germany now, which is nearly a week into a one-month lockdown. They're trying to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which continues to rage across Europe. Nearly half of all new cases worldwide are in Europe, and yet schools in Germany remain open. NPR's Rob Schmitz joins me from Berlin.

Hey, Rob.


KELLY: So what exactly is locked down where you are, and how does it compare to the previous lockdown that you did in the spring there?

SCHMITZ: Well, it all feels sort of normal. You know, restaurants, bars, gyms and, you know, nearly every other leisure business has been closed. But I'm seeing more people along the streets wearing masks than before. But in many ways, you know, this lockdown doesn't really feel like the last lockdown in the spring. And that's because schools and day cares throughout Germany are still open except in the worst hotspots.

KELLY: Which is fascinating to me because it's the opposite of what is happening in many parts of the United States.


KELLY: We've got a lot of - in my neighborhood, restaurants and gyms are open, but a lot of the schools are still shut. What is the thinking in Germany?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, so here's the thinking. First, the German government believes that distance learning is not an adequate substitute for in-class learning, especially for younger students. The government also wants to keep adults working in the economy going, which is near-impossible to do if their children are at home, as everyone knows. And finally, the German government is basing this decision on scientific studies that have shown that transmission rates of the virus are low inside a school environment. I spoke with Dr. Johannes Huebner about this. He's the head of the pediatric infectious disease department at the Ludwigs Maximilian University Hospital in Munich. Here's what he said.

JOHANNES HUEBNER: Most of the infections are brought into the schools by adults, by teachers, and then spread among kids. But most of the times, it's only single cases. It's two, three kids, five maybe that get positive.

SCHMITZ: And, Mary Louise, my family has personal experience with this, too. You know, my oldest son tested positive for the coronavirus more than a month ago. This was after his school told us his teacher tested positive. A handful of his classmates also tested positive. My son did not pass it on to us. And if the local health authority here in Berlin wouldn't have tested him, we would never have known that he had the virus. I told Dr. Hoebner about this, and he said our experience was pretty typical and that for him, the No. 1 precaution for German schools is having small and well-defined groups inside each school that do not mix. And that's what we're seeing inside German schools.

KELLY: Well, first off, I'm so glad your son is OK and that you all are OK.

SCHMITZ: Thanks.

KELLY: He's back in school, then. What kind of precautions is his school taking going forward?

SCHMITZ: So when he goes to school each day, he has to wear a mask both in the hallway and in the classroom. His class has around 20 or 30 students, and they stay together all day. They do not mix with other classes. And our school does routine testing of its teachers. And if there's a positive case, then that teacher's class is sent home for testing and potential quarantine. They do not close the whole school in that situation. Each class is sort of its own bubble. And so far, the system seems to work pretty well, especially given the surge of cases in Germany. We're at more than 21,000 confirmed cases today, another new single-day record in this first week of lockdown.

KELLY: Which does make me wonder how sustainable this is. If you're hitting new records there in terms of cases, is there a point where schools are going to say, you know what; we got to close?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, and each German state has its own criteria for this. Here in Berlin, there's a stoplight system. If a school has issued a red light by the local health authority - it's deemed to have too many infections - it's then shut down until the situation is under control. And currently there are three schools in Berlin that are under these red-light orders.

KELLY: That is our Berlin correspondent, Rob Schmitz.

Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF AGNES OBEL SONG, "MARY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Schmitz is NPR's international correspondent based in Berlin, where he covers the human stories of a vast region reckoning with its past while it tries to guide the world toward a brighter future. From his base in the heart of Europe, Schmitz has covered Germany's levelheaded management of the COVID-19 pandemic, the rise of right-wing nationalist politics in Poland and creeping Chinese government influence inside the Czech Republic.
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