Is protecting pregnant trainees discrimination?

More corona problems – pregnant teachers-in-training are unable to complete their final professional exams. One soon-to-be-qualified teacher is hiding her pregnancy and criticizing what she sees as discrimination.

Preparing for tomorrow's class.
Preparing for tomorrow's class.Imago

Berlin-Five days a week, Jenni Mahler stands in front of a class and teaches maths and English. The 27-year-old Berliner is just a few months away from her state teaching exams, which would end her probationary training period and begin her tenure in the profession. She already has a job offer from the comprehensive school where she has worked as a supply teacher since 2017.

So far, so good – Berlin urgently needs more teachers like Jenni. But she has yet to sign on the line for the new job.

Due to her unplanned pregnancy, Jenni – not her real name – may not be able to complete her exams, in-class observation and subsequent review with the exam board, set for December. Berlin's education department wants to pre-empt any corona claims and won't allow pregnant  women to attend or teach in-person classes, halting the would-be teachers' professional plans and sparking financial losses.

“The probationary period is a very turbulent and nerve-wracking time because while you’re already acting as a teacher, you get treated like you’re still at school,” Mahler says in a café opposite the school.

Now in the fourth month of her pregnancy, her baby bump isn’t showing yet. She describes how she plucked up the courage to tell her school's headteacher about the pregnancy.

No in-class teaching for pregnant trainee teachers

“It was immediately clear that from that moment, I’d have to stay at home,” Jenni says. The two agreed that Jenni should wear loose-fiting clothes rathern than leave her 10 maths and English lessons every week without a teacher. 

“The ruling exists to protect mothers and their unborn children. Unfortunately, no other legally secure options were possible,” a schools spokesperson said.

If a child was to be harmed as a result of a mother contracting Covid-19 on school premises, the school management or training seminar leaders could be held liable, the spokesperson added. The Berlin city administration would also not be fulfilling its legal duty of care to its employees.

The spokesperson acknowledged that in a small number of cases, some individuals would face delays in completing their final exams, which the department regretted. It promised to support the small number affected.

School managers could be liable for damages

In Jenni’s case, all parties are doing what they feel they have to do. The headteacher needs teachers. Jenni wants to complete her final exam and start working again in her dream profession after the birth of her child, this time under normal conditions. The education department fears litigation if a foetus is harmed.

But Jenni feels she has been treated unfairly. Other solutions have been found for others who belonged to high-risk groups and they have the documentation to prove it.

In the spring, when schoolchildren were all at home, trainee teachers in high-risk groups were allowed to complete their exams in a colloquium in front of instructors. Alternatives were also sought for those in other risk groups, for example those for whom lessons in smaller groups would be possible. These trainees have to demonstrate at least 12 months of practical teaching experience. But despite her years of teaching practice, Jenni can’t benefit from any of these options.

The education department accepts that the delays, which are not always apparent, are being enforced at a time when teachers are in short supply. “Protecting mother and child is considered a higher priority at this time,” the spokesperson explained.

Jenni thinks the policy is discrimination since only mothers will be left empty-handed. She had expected a higher willingness to find solutions from an employer that has not just education, but also family in its name.

New schools edict in the works - but no guarantees

Trade union GEW (Gewerkschaft Erziehung und Wissenschaft, Education and Science Workers' Union) is aware of the issue, as others have reported having the same problem as Jenni.

Union representatives are currently in talks with the department about a new regulation which would see the exams run differently. The old edict, which allowed the extraordinary measures during the first months of the pandemic, expired at the end of June.

On the grounds that the aim is to get working practices back to normal, there has not yet been a new one. However, since there is still a need to find solutions for people belonging to risk groups, a colloquium solution is now being considered again – even for the eventuality that study groups might have to go back into quarantine. When asked whether this way of taking the final exam might also be possible for pregnant women, the department said the guidelines had not yet been finalised.

For Jenni, she’s hoping that she can continue to hide her bump until after the exam is done. With everything that’s going on in 2020, she’s decided to carry on keeping her pregnancy a secret.

This article was adapted from the original German for the English edition by Elizabeth Rushton.