Education and Pandemic: Illusion Classroom Classes

Schools will teach more digitally than they’d like. Even if that doesn’t work out well in many places: The federal and state governments are finally improving.

Despite all the differences in the countries, most schools in the country will remain closed until the end of January Photo: Christophe Gateau / dpa

The new year begins for schools: in chaos. All you need to do is take a look at the rules that apply after the Christmas holidays in Germany. Children have to continue studying at home, but come to school for class work. Depending on where you live, there is emergency care for everyone – or only for parents with certain professions. Some countries postpone the half-yearly reports – others the carnival holidays. Baden-Württemberg and Lower Saxony will open primary schools next week. Elsewhere, this is considered premature. In Hamburg and Bremen, parents decide whether their children can go to school. And in Saxony and Thuringia, state politicians promise: inside regular classes in February, although the current infection numbers hardly show that.

The ministers of education: inside drive on sight. You weigh up between health protection, equal opportunities, the compatibility of work and family. Therefore – despite all the differences between the countries – most schools in the country will remain closed until the end of January. That’s a good thing. In doing so, the ministers of culture also tacitly admit what they had denied outright until before Christmas: that schools can very well play a role in the infection process. But that also means: closed schools and distance learning could be with us for a long, long time in 2021. Not least because of the particularly contagious virus mutation B.1.1.7, which has already been discovered in several federal states. The speedy return to face-to-face teaching, on which the ministers of education are building on as a matter of course, could prove to be an illusion. All the more annoying are the failures that make distance learning more difficult today.

As a reminder: five years ago, the ministers of education promised that in 2021 every student in the country could access a “digital learning environment” – with their own smartphone, broadband at all schools and appropriately trained teachers. A survey by the teachers’ union VBE among 785 school principals from the end of November shows how far the schools are from this promise: only 6 percent of schools have tablets for all children, and only 15 percent have enough staff for digital work trained. Connection to broadband? Only has every second school. And all that eight months after the painful homeschooling experience in the first lockdown. How can that be?

In any case, it’s not the money. The federal government’s 5 billion euros have been available for the School Digital Pact since May 2019. But even during the pandemic, nobody seemed to be in a particularly hurry. By July 2020, the federal states had called up just 15.7 million euros. Since then, the federal government has added three immediate programs, each worth 500 million euros: initially for loan devices for pupils in need, later one more for IT staff in schools and for work laptops for teachers. And: The federal and state governments have simplified the application process for digital pact funds. Since then there has been a bit of speed. Nevertheless, at the end of 2020 just 18 percent of the funds were approved. In Saarland or Schleswig-Holstein, only around 3 percent. Fast retrofitting in the pandemic looks different.

No virtual lessons

Nothing symbolizes half-heartedness better than the state learning platforms. Actually, Mebis, LernSax or Lernraum Berlin should make more of “home learning” than a pile of printed worksheets. Unfortunately, Mebis & Co lubricate reliably if too many classes want to log in at the same time. In March, the parents still understood the technical breakdowns. Today it looks like the ministries haven’t done their homework. But even if the learning platforms ran optimally: they do not allow virtual lessons. This requires video tools such as Zoom or Microsoft Teams, which the ministries of education are reluctant to respond to – for reasons of data protection and perhaps also for cost reasons.

The truth is that not all teachers want (or consider necessary) to teach live in front of the PC. But maybe you would try it if you had an appropriately equipped service device, didn’t have to worry about data protection issues and were satisfied with the technical support at the school. At least a survey by the education union GEW shows that the vast majority of the teachers surveyed are dissatisfied with the topic of digital teaching. And also with the training offers.

But something is happening. In Lower Saxony, for example, 53,550 teachers have received digital training since the first lockdown, almost 80 percent of the entire teaching staff. The number of laptops that the ministries have now bought and distributed to schools sounds similarly impressive: 23,412 in Schleswig-Holstein, 38,813 in Saxony, 41,610 in Berlin, etc. Many federal states are adding thousands of devices on top of that to help as many students as possible to be able to borrow a device. If school administrators were hired just as quickly and service laptops were distributed for teachers, distance learning in the second half of the school year should be a little better and fairer. And more digital.

Of course, this does not solve all the problems that arise with long distance learning. But at least the countries are now more courageously improving. In line with this, the focus of this year’s conference of ministers of education is on: digital learning. But that doesn’t change anything about the ministers’ primary goal: the fastest possible return to classroom teaching. However, when and how which schools reopen is decided by each federal state. For schools, the year 2021 is likely to continue as chaotic as it began.