Back to school in a time of COVID-19: FES experts give four crucial recommendations

Germany is currently re-opening its schools, but how can the country ensure safe and equal access to education during the pandemic? FES Connect spoke to Martin Pfafferott, Head of the Department for Education and Research Policy of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Berlin, about the foundation’s newly established expert committee.

FES Connect: In early May, the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung formed an expert committee to discuss the future of the upcoming school year in Germany. What was the idea behind it?  

PfafferottThe coronavirus pandemic has been having massive impacts on the school system in Germany. The schools were shut down in March and are now being opened little by little and for some children. The situation is complicated for several groups: above all for the children. Although digital tools have been rapidly established by many schools, pupils are missing out on education. Equally important is that social contact to other members of peer groups has been reduced, which is problematic for the younger children as well as teenagers.  

Secondly, a lot of parents are being confronted with the challenge of combining working from home, home schooling, and care for younger children. Thirdly, the schools are under extreme pressure to establish new and digital ways to communicate with the pupils and to teach them. In the best case this promotes digital education, but it depends heavily on the encouragement and infrastructure of the individual school. As the pandemic is going to last until the autumn and probably for most of the next school year, it is important to find solutions and to support education policies, schools, teachers, parents and pupils now. 


Enabling children from working-class families to get an education is part of the founding vision of FES. How is the current pandemic affecting the education of these children now? 

The current situation is especially problematic for those children whose parents cannot support them in an adequate way. The school lockdown has made more significant the different levels of resources and infrastructure of the parental home. Well educated parents can support their children with their homework and playing substitute teacher. At the same time, children with parents who lack education or have a less firm grasp of the German language cannot support their children in this way. The same can be seen regarding the infrastructure, especially the digital one. 

In some families it is self-evident that every child has their own laptop and several digital devices. In other families, in contrast, several members share one smartphone. Of course, this leads to different conditions for accessing teaching material. Under these circumstances a fair comparison is not possible at all. Local governments are doing the right thing when they support and equip families and children with such resources as they can. But in the context school lockdowns the underlying social inequality in the school system, already pronounced in Germany, is rising. 


What other major issues was the committee trying to solve?   

The committee was working on several topics: A big part was the question of school organization, e.g. how children can be taught when the schools are re-opened, but contact must be minimized. Another topic is the focus on educational content and whether it could be possible to focus on elements of the curriculum when teaching cannot take place as usual. We asked what exams could look like under restricted conditions and of course how digital education can be improved in the short and middle term.  

The basis of our considerations was that schools cannot simply prepare themselves for one way of setting up the next school year. As no one knows how the virus will spread in the next months, schools should be prepared for different scenarios and must be able to react quickly. Thus, we identified three settings: classes conducted in schools, a combination of place-based and distance learning, and solely distance learning. In the end, there is not one simple recommendation we can give to schools on how to operate in the next year. We rather develop a range of possibilities and opportunities for schools for them to be equipped to handle whatever comes their way.  


Considering the current status of the world, what do you think a typical school year 2020/21 might look like? 

The first of the committee’s main findings was that practicing distance learning is generally easier for teenagers. Therefore, younger children should be prioritised when it comes to returning to school. 

Second, for distance learning to work there need to be binding schedules and every student should have a person that they are in personal contact with at least once a week.  

Third, when it comes to exams, subject matters, and schedules, they should be reduced but not to the disadvantage of the minor subjects. And both study times and the awarding of degrees should be flexible.  

Lastly, school grades in general should play a less important role than they normally do in the German education system. The school closures have made a fair comparison of all students is challenging.  

The committee also suggests offering compensatory summer schools to reduce learning gaps between students. And school administration is of course responsible for equipping every student with the necessary digital infrastructure they need to continue their education.  

All in all, I think the next school year will certainly be a very difficult one, but every crisis also creates new opportunities. New opportunities not only for digital education but also for how we can take a closer look and further improve the quality of education and the learning conditions that continue to shape our children each day. 


About the interviewee

Martin Pfafferott is the Head of the Department for Education and Research Policy at the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung in Berlin.

About FES Connect

Connecting people, in the spirit of social democracy, we source and share content in English from the German and international network of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung.

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