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Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Germany is reopening its schools and the world is watching

The country has recorded a high number of cases, but far fewer deaths than Spain, France, Italy or the UK.

When is the right time to open up schools, to welcome back pupils and allow student life to feel the same again?

It is a question that is challenging governments across the world, particularly in Europe. But after weeks of plaudits about how it has handled the pandemic, Germany is about to take a small but significant step towards a sort of normality.

In the coming days, children from two school years will be going back to the classroom.

Well, at least some of them will, in some regions, on some days. It is a toe in the water, but an important one.

A decision about the wider return to school is also due in the coming days, but for two year groups the doors will be open.

Pupils who are either about to make the move from primary school to secondary school or those about to take exams will be welcomed back.

But they will have to abide by strict hygiene and social distancing rules. Easy to say but perhaps not so easy to maintain when your subjects are young children excited to see their friends again.

Education is a devolved responsibility in Germany, which is why Chancellor Angela Merkel's decision to reopen schools in the coming days came only after a conference call with leaders of the 16 states.

Some are keen to bring children back into the classroom. Others, such as Bavaria, which has been badly hit by the virus, are more wary.

Bavaria has delayed the opening of any schools until 11 May. There are lively arguments about whether it is more decisive to push through the return - or to wait.

And that impression is important. Prominent figures within the ruling CDU party are dealing with the virus while keeping half an eye on the impending leadership contest.

Politics, as ever, does not exist in a vacuum, although the identity of the new leader may not be decided until later in the year.

Few, after all, doubt that Angela Merkel has handled this crisis with the confidence of a trained scientist who also happens to be the German chancellor.

There is little appetite for a leadership contest at the moment, but the candidates are keen to emerge from the pandemic with credit.

Certainly Germany feels different. In Dusseldorf, as across the country, small shops have been allowed to open as long as they follow guidelines on social distancing.

There is a queue of a dozen people outside one clothes shop. A mobile phone shop is doing a roaring trade. It feels like a culture shock to be in a city where you can simply wander in and out of non-essential stores.

At the city's international school, a few pupils have already returned to the classroom, and they are making preparations for the return of two year groups.

Eileen Lyons, the school's director, says it will be difficult, but insists the school will cope.

She told Sky News: "We have set up the classrooms to have the social distancing of two metres - not just one and a half - and we've put in place all the signs and the equipment. We won't insist on masks, but we will encourage them.

"We've been kept informed all the way through. The pandemic has been hugely disruptive and returning will be hugely challenging but I'm confident we will manage it."

Germany has received many plaudits for its performance during this epidemic. The country has recorded a high number of cases, but far fewer deaths than Spain, France, Italy or the UK.

Many have looked at its record of investment in health facilities, in testing and tracing.

Now, they look at something else - how Germany will manage this gradual return to something like normal life.

At the moment there are no dates for the sporting events to restart, no consensus on when normal travel can resume. The return of other pupils awaits a decision, along with big shops.

But there is a kind of impetus here, as there is in some other European nations.

The question they all ask, though, is profound: How to balance the need to reopen life with the fear of a resurgence of the virus?

That is why, as it prepares to welcome back some of its millions of schoolchildren, much of the world will once again be watching Germany, and waiting to see what happens next.

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