A month of mouth caps in German class: hovering between lines and reasonableness

He sounds a little relieved that as of today he can look his pupils in the face again. “It was certainly exhausting,” says Michael Tölking, a gymnasium teacher in Kleve, Germany. “You have to imagine that there is a lot of noise in such a classroom anyway, because the windows are open for air ventilation. If such a mouth shield muffles your voice, you have to talk loudly to each other all the time”

Where the Dutch schools reopened after the summer holidays without too many measures, most German states made it compulsory to wear a mouth shield in parts of the school building. North Rhine-Westphalia, just across the border from the Netherlands and severely affected during the corona– pandemic, even went a step further. There, secondary school students were also obliged to wear mouth masks in the classroom for a month.

So, too, at the Stein Gymnasium in Kleve. “And that took some getting used to,” explains Tölking in almost accentless Dutch. He teaches the upper secondary students in religion, German and Dutch. “Although you would have to think less about the one and a half metre distance with that mouth mask, I was still inclined to take it easy and give more classroom lessons

So that people don’t have to sit so close together or change places, Tölking explains. “Whether that has influenced the development of some pupils, I can’t say at this point

The students themselves soon took the mouthpieces for granted in class. “Most of them were especially happy that they were finally able to go back to school after the lockdown and the holidays. They accepted quite easily that they had to do so under these conditions.” Rather a mouth mask than no lesson at all, seemed to be the motto.

Tölking understands why Nordrhein-Westfalen took this drastic measure at the beginning of August. “Our state suffers from a large number of corona infections. If they had opened the schools without a plan, and things had gone wrong, there would have been serious accusations that they had been too lax.”

Now that the schools are on their way again for a month, and few people are returning from at-risk areas, the mouthguard obligation in the classroom has been abolished as of today. On the square and in the corridors of the school building the rule still applies.

This is the beginning of a period of uncertainty, says teacher Tölking. “For the school management explicitly calls on everyone to continue to wear the masks voluntarily in class. Among other things to protect pupils and teachers with fragile health”

Teachers also remain obliged to wear a mouth guard if they cannot keep the one and a half metre distance. Not a duty, but still they do. “You end up in a grey area, which can lead to difficult discussions between rees and precisions,” says Tölking.

Living in two systems

The Dutch language teacher is swinging back and forth in a whirlpool of opinions anyway, because he has been living for years just across the border in the Dutch town of Groesbeek. The difference in approach to the corona crisis between the two countries sometimes feels crooked. “I actually live in two systems. Then I see Dutch people doing their shopping in Germany and wearing a mouth shield in the shops. But once back in the Netherlands, it’s as if there’s no pandemic.”

He can’t say whether the Dutch are by definition fiercely opposed to the corona measures. “I sometimes pay attention to that song in my lessons: ‘Fifteen million people, you don’t prescribe the laws. Surely the Dutch are more of a people who don’t allow themselves to be patronised, while we Germans might accept a little quicker if there’s a new law.”

What is the best method? “I don’t know. I hope to hear that soon from virologists and epidemiologists. I support what’s best for society. We’ll find out later if Holland was too lax, or Germany too strict.”