Bonn · The state says no, the city says yes: A political dispute has broken out over masks in the classroom. The decision is now up to the students themselves.
For students and teachers, it must seem like déjà vu: When the mandatory wearing of masks at secondary schools in North Rhine-Westphalia expired at the beginning of September 2020, many schools in Bonn continued to rely at least on the voluntary wearing of a mouth-nose covering. After the 2020 fall vacations, the state government reintroduced the mandatory wearing of masks in secondary schools and only recently lifted it again. Now it is the Bonn city government that is appealing for voluntary wearing of masks in classrooms. In view of rising numbers of Covid-19 cases throughout Germany, as well as RSV respiratory infections that occur particularly in children, the crisis team believes that lifting the mask requirement in schools is not the right thing to do. When children are not seated at their regular places, the mask requirement continues to apply anyway.
Politics and medicine are at odds
In its opposing position to the state government, as has been heard from other cities in recent days, the city crisis team has academic support behind it: "From a scientific point of view, the lifting of the mask requirement is incomprehensible," says Professor Nico Mutters, Director of the Institute for Hygiene and Public Health at Bonn University Hospital. "We have enough proven, scientific evidence that wearing masks reduces infections. They are a very effective protection against infections from close-range contacts," the physician explains.
The German Association of Towns and Cities in North Rhine-Westphalia (Deutscher Städtetag NRW) has also spoken out against the lifting of the mask requirement; it fears that classes and afternoon supervision without masks will lead to significantly more quarantines of students and teaching staff. In contrast, the president of the Professional Association of Pediatricians and Adolescents, Thomas Fischbach, had called the general adherence to a mask requirement in schools "inappropriate." But Bonn's mayor Katja Dörner (Greens), on the other hand, summarized the administration's position like this: "We would like to see masks worn in schools.”
State government stopped the city of Krefeld from issuing a general decree
Appealing and hoping - that's all the administration can do in this case. Last week, the city of Krefeld was rebuked by the Ministry of Education: Its push to continue the mask requirement by municipal general decree on its own was rejected at the state level. Just like the city government, individual schools cannot enforce a mask obligation on their own, as the ministry has now clarified in view of the debate. Pamphlets advising students to continue wearing the masks are now also being circulated in Bonn schools.
The fact that wearing the protective masks remains possible on a voluntary basis is creating a mixed bag of mask wearing. "Some students continue to wear them, others don't, some wear them sometimes," is what is currently being said by many families in Bonn. How divided the opinions are, even among adults, was recently shown in a survey by the General-Anzeiger, in which about half were for and half against the mandatory wearing of masks in class. The views of the politicians also differ greatly: School policy spokeswoman of the Bonn SPD, Gieslint Grenz expressly welcomed the appeal of the city, and said on Sunday,"We should do everything possible to spare children and young people quarantine and renewed online lessons.” Her personal impression is that many children and young people see this similarly and for that reason continue to wear the masks.
Rolf Haßelkus, chairman of the Education and Science Union (GEW) in Bonn, shares Grenz's view: "There is no doubt that wearing masks is a burden for children, but the first thing we have to do now is protect health.” In view of the current incidence of infections, he expects that the state government will have to backpedal in a few weeks, as it did in Bavaria, and renew the obligation to wear masks - "although everyone had recently gotten used to it," says Haßelkus.
Education Minister Gebauer: We will observe infection incidence
In view of the debate, NRW Education Minister Yvonne Gebauer (FDP) announced that the infection situation would continue to be closely monitored, but otherwise reaffirmed her decision. Likewise, her colleague Franziska Müller-Rech, member of the state parliament from Bonn and school policy spokesperson for her parliamentary group in Düsseldorf, defended getting rid of the mask requirement: "More normality is now needed for the children, especially since the schools are not pandemic drivers and the risk of severe Covid illnesses for children tends towards zero: In view of the freedom of choice of the young people, she could also live with the appeal of the city administration and is relaxed about how that contradicts with the state: "What is important to me is that no moral pressure or peer pressure is exerted on the children now," she told the General-Anzeiger on Sunday.
Her colleague in the Bonn state parliament, Guido Déus (CDU), agreed with her when asked: Children and adolescents in particular had been subjected to extreme conditions during the pandemic, although schools were "demonstrably safe places" thanks to regular testing. Déus believes masks should be voluntary, depending on one’s personal family situation, and it should be the decision of the parents as opposed to state-mandated.
And parent representative Andreas Beutgen also speaks out against "induced fears" and in favor of personal responsibility: In this respect, the decision of the ministry is welcomed and the appeal of the city is also acceptable, although "in practice unnecessary, because the children, the parents and the schools have long since adapted to the situation”.
Orig. text: Rüdiger Franz - Translation: ck