By Joerg Ratzsch, Joerg Blank and Rachel More, dpa
Berlin (dpa) – Most of Germany’s states began sending children back to school on Monday following their longest period of lockdown yet, in a move welcomed by the country’s education minister despite signs that progress in the pandemic is slipping.
“It is good that many schools in Germany are now starting in-person learning again step by step,” Anja Karliczek told dpa.
“Children, particularly the younger ones, need each other,” she said.
Karliczek appealed for “all available measures for the prevention of viral infections” to be used in order to ensure that schools can stay open in the coming weeks.
The minister pointed to rising case numbers and the threat of more-virulant strains of the coronavirus, for example the B117 strain first identified in Britain, which is becoming increasingly common in Germany.
“This must also be taken into consideration regarding schools. But I am certain that the states have considered this in deciding to reopen,” she added.
Germany remains under lockdown, with restaurants and other businesses deemed non-essential shut and tough contact restrictions still in place, but the responsibility of reopening schools has been handed over to the nation’s 16 state administrations.
Following on from Lower Saxony and Saxony, a further 10 states – including Berlin, North Rhine Westphalia and Bavaria – have begun sending children back to classrooms using a variety of strategies to keep groups limited and possible infections contained.
Child-care facilities have also reopened their doors.
State health ministers are to discuss later Monday whether teachers and child-care professionals should get bumped up the waiting list for vaccinations.
Cabinet ministers in Berlin are also to discuss a push by Health Minister Jens Spahn to roll out free rapid antigen tests from the start of next month, amid hopes this could allow further easing of restrictions.
Chancellor Angela Merkel is next scheduled to meet with state premiers to discuss the lockdown on March 3.
She took part in an online conference with other top members of the Christian Democrats (CDU) on Monday, during which she warned of the risk of a third wave of infections and urged caution in opening up again, according to sources.
Nonetheless, Merkel noted that citizens were keen to hear some kind of reopening strategy.
Starting Tuesday, her chief of staff, Helge Braun, is to start a working group with his state-level counterparts to draw together plans for relaunching education, gastronomy, sport and cultural activities, as well as easing contact restrictions, the sources said.
New infections in Germany trended upwards on Sunday for the fourth day in a row, despite falling numbers in the weeks before.
On Monday, the nation’s Robert Koch Institute for disease control counted another 4,369 new cases – slightly less than a week before – for a total of almost 2.4 million infections in the pandemic so far.
However, the number of infections recorded per 100,000 people over seven days increased from 60.2 on Sunday to 61, the government agency said.
The death toll rose by 62 to 67,903.
“The positive development that gave us falling daily infection numbers over a long period is over for now,” government spokesman Steffen Seibert warned.
“The numbers are rising again. The proportion of dangerous, more virulent virus mutations is growing,” he told reporters in Berlin.
Currently, the B117 strain is said to be behind 20-25 per cent of cases in the country.