Handling Outbreaks after COVID-19 Re-openings: The Case of Germany

By guest blogger Nathan Storey*

As schools across the U.S. are beginning to reopen in hybrid or full formats, unanticipated outbreaks of COVID are bound to occur. To help schools prepare, we have been writing about strategies schools and districts in other countries have used to combat outbreaks.

In this week’s case study, I examine how Germany has responded to outbreaks and managed school reopening nationwide.

Germany

Over one month since reopening after the summer holiday, German schools are largely still open. Critics and health experts worried in the early weeks as cases in the country appeared to increase (Morris & Weber-Steinhaus, 2020), but schools have been able to continue to operate. Now students sit in classes without masks, and children are allowed to move and interact freely on the playground.

Immediately following the reopening, 31 outbreak clusters (150 cases) were identified in the first week of schooling, and 41 schools in Berlin (out of 825 schools in the region) experienced COVID-19 cases during the first two weeks of schooling, requiring quarantines, testing, and temporary closures. Similar issues occurred across the country as schools reopened in other states. Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, the first state to reopen, saw 800-plus students from Goethe Gymnasium in Ludwigslust sent home for quarantine after a faculty member tested positive. One hundred primary school students in Rostock district were quarantined for two weeks when a fellow student tested positive. Yet now one month later, German schools remain open. How is this possible?

Germany has focused its outbreak responses on individual student and class-level quarantines instead of shutting down entire schools. Due to active and widespread testing nationwide in the early stages of the outbreak, the country was able to get control of community-level positivity rates, paving the way for schools to reopen both in the spring, and again after summer break. Rates rose in August, but tracking enabled authorities to trace the cases to people returning from summer vacation, not from schools. At schools, outbreaks have generally been limited to one teacher or one student, who have contracted the virus from family or community members, not from within the school.

When these outbreaks occur, schools close for a day awaiting test results, but reopen quickly once affected individuals are tested negative and can return to class. At Sophie-Charlotte High School in Berlin, three days after reopening, the school received word that two students tested positive from the girls’ parents. The school in turn informed the local health authority, leading to 191 students and teachers asked to quarantine at home. Everyone was tested and two days later they received their test results. Before the week was up, school was back in session. By one estimate, due to the efficient testing and individual or class quarantines, fewer than 600 Berliner students have had to stay home for a day (out of more than 366,000 students) (Bennhold, 2020).

So far, there has been one more serious outbreak at Heinrich Hertz School in Hamburg, where a cluster of 26 students and three teachers have all received positive diagnoses, potentially infected by one of the teachers. The school moved to quarantine grades six and eight, and mask wearing rules were more strictly followed. The school and local health authorities are continuing to study the potential transmission patterns to locate the origin of the cluster.

Testing in Germany is effective because it is extensive, but targeted to those with direct contact with infections. At Heinz-Berggruen school in Berlin, a sixth grader was found to be infected after being tested even though she had no symptoms. Someone in her family had tested positive. Tracing the family member’s contacts, tests determined the source of the infection stemmed from international travel, and Heinz-Berggruen remained open, with just the infected student quarantined for two weeks. At Goethe Gymnasium in Ludwigslust, mentioned earlier, the infected teacher was sent home, and all 55 teachers were subsequently tested. The school was able to reopen less than a week later.

Some challenges have arisen. As in the US, German states are responsible for their own COVID-19 prevention measures and must make plans for the case of outbreaks. One city councilor in the Neukölln district of Berlin revealed there was confusion among parents and schools about children’s symptoms and response plans. As a result, children whose only symptoms are runny noses, for instance, have been sent home, and worries are increasing as to how effectively schools and districts will differentiate COVID-19 from flu in the winter.

The German case provides some optimism that schools can manage outbreaks and reopen successfully through careful planning and organization. Testing, contact tracing, and communication are vital, as is lowering of community positivity rates. Cases may be rising in Germany again (Loxton, 2020), but with these strategies and new national COVID management rules in place, the country is in an excellent position to address the challenge.

*Nathan Storey is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education

References

Barton, T., & Parekh, A. (2020, August 11). Reopening schools: Lessons from abroad. https://doi.org/10.26099/yr9j-3620

(2020, June 12). As Europe reopens schools, relief combines with risk. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/10/world/europe/reopen-schools-germany.html

Bennhold, K. (2020, August 26). Germany faces a ‘roller coaster’ as schools reopen amid Coronavirus—The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/08/26/world/europe/germany-schools-virus-reopening.html?smid=em-share

Holcombe, M. (2020, October 5). New York City to close schools in some areas as Northeast sees rise in new cases. CNN. https://www.cnn.com/2020/10/05/health/us-coronavirus-monday/index.html

Loxton, R. (2020, October 15). What you need to know about Germany’s new coronavirus measures for autumn. The Local. https://www.thelocal.de/20201015/what-you-need-to-know-about-germanys-new-coronavirus-measures-for-autumn-and-winter

Medical Xpress. (2020, August 7). Germany closes two schools in new virus blow. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2020-08-germany-schools-virus.html

Morris, L., & Weber-Steinhaus, F. (2020, September 11). Schools have seen no coronavirus outbreaks since reopening a month ago in Germany—The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/covid-schools-germany/2020/09/10/309648a4-eedf-11ea-bd08-1b10132b458f_story.html

Noryskiewicz, A. (2020, August 25). Coronavirus data 2 weeks into Germany’s school year “reassures” expert. https://www.cbsnews.com/news/coronavirus-school-germany-no-outbreaks/

The Associated Press (2020, August 27). Europe is going back to school despite recent virus surge—Education Week. AP. http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2020/08/27/europe-is-going-back-to-school_ap.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news2&M=59665135&U=&UUID=4397669ca555af41d7b271f2dafac508

This blog was developed with support from Arnold Ventures. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Arnold Ventures.

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