Calls for hybrid school schedules are growing

Staggered starts are supposed to stop Covid-19 outbreaks in schools, but schools want more autonomy and stricter measures.

School in 2020.
School in 2020.imago

Berlin-The note arrived late Friday at school offices around the city and came as a surprise. Starting Wednesday morning, Berlin education officials had decided, the start of the school day would be "spread out over a period of two hours" so that fewer students would meet during the commute and in hallways. All secondary school students would also be required to wear masks in class.

"School principals are now accustomed to short-term instructions," says Norman Heise, the Berlin State Parents' Representative. But altering schedules within just a few days is very adventurous. By Wednesday, many had been unable to create a way to implement the staggered start.

Secondary schools are taking a different approach. Some have decided to just stagger starts in increments of 20 minutes - the first students arrive at 8am, the next at 8.20am and the third at 8.40 am. Classes then begin in unison at 8.45am and the first lesson has just been moved to the end of the day.

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"A class that starts in the third hour or so has to do its workload in the afternoon and then ends up in rush hour," says Heise, who oversees a "colourful vegetable garden" of ways to implement the staggered openings. Some schools have decided to make up for the lost classroom time with more homework.

A teacher at a grammar school in Friedrichhain describes the effects of the staggering for her eighth grade class. Instead of 8am, the class comes at half past eight followed by exactly 15 minutes of music lessons, during which the teacher is supposed to check how much of the homework was completed. 

"Not very helpful," she says. 

"The staggered start makes it impossible to meet the Berlin timetable and the framework curriculum. So the second lockdown of the Berlin school is starting on Wednesday," says Ralf Treptow from the Association of Secondary Principals. Politicians have to start thinking about how to make up for the classroom time lost in 2020, he said. Much of the planned curriculum will also be missed during the coming winter, and even under hybrid operation, not 100 per cent of the material can be taught if schools go into warning level red.

Treptow wants a legal footing for principals to take action on their own beyond the Senat education department's warning level plans: "A school must be able to decide for itself what to do if a pupil's positive [corona] test comes in at 7 pm." Waiting on advice from the health department can take days and, even if several classes are already in quarantine, management must be able to set the level to red on its own, he said. "The Senat cannot cope with the crisis without schools acting on their own."

They're always the first to finish.

Some schools would prefer to go into hybrid teaching, with some classes at home and some at school, sooner rather than later: The plans have already been drawn up.

"After all, that was the assignment," says the grammar school teacher from Friedrichshain.

New material would be introduced when kids are in the classroom, known as A weeks, and then expanded upon and practised during at-home, or B, weeks. The teacher is sure students over 12 can learn more effectively with this method. The GEW teachers' union, teachers' associations and school management have been calling for a changeover to hybrid schooling.

However, education minister Sandra Scheeres (SPD) has so far only encouraged schools to try hybrid forms. "A test phase of one, two or three days a week is by no means prohibited," says Scheeres. A complete switch is what the education department wants to prevent.

At the Friedrichshain school, one pupil has not been coming to class at all for months because her mother belongs to a risk group. In the classroom, a laptop is stationed at her desk and she works with the girl she would normally sit next to via video conference.

"They are always the first to finish," says her teacher.

This article was adapted for the English Edition from the original about hybrid class schedules by Andrew Bulkeley.