German school portal: Your presidency motto is “learn from the pandemic”. What do you want to achieve specifically?
Karen Prien: In the last two years we have had to design the school in a very different way than before, sometimes in distance and alternate teaching, with the use of digital media and tools and with some new teaching methods. Now we need to see what worked and what we can take with us in the future. With my presidency, I would like to give impetus to this process.
You continue to emphasize the importance of face-to-face teaching. From your point of view, what is more important in order to keep operations face-to-face despite the wave of Omikron?
The need for face-to-face teaching is mainly due to the psychosocial consequences that children and young people experienced during the pandemic. School is both a place to live and learn for children and young people. As far as we know, omicron is more contagious than the previous variants, but the course of the disease and symptoms are also milder. That is why I definitely think it is responsible to continue the lessons face-to-face, obviously with greater hygiene measures. First, this includes the mask. However, this also includes ventilation concepts, cohort rules, and an intensive testing regimen that allows us to break the chains of infection at an early stage.
Simplifications are also foreseen for final exams in 2022
The KMK’s decision on final exams 2021/22, taken shortly before Christmas, states: “Exams can take place in closed schools, provided there are no conflicting state regulations.” Do you expect schools to close this year?
The decision we made before Christmas is essentially the same decision we made in the last two school years. This is a precautionary decision, which aims in particular at the mutual recognition of qualifications. The experience of the last two examinations has shown that the situation in the federal Länder can be very different. But even under extreme lockdown conditions, we could and can conduct all exams in person.
Will there be the same adjustments and simplifications for this school year’s final exams as in 2020 and 2021? Could it also be an option to cancel exams this year due to the corona pandemic?
We have already rejected it in 2020 and I see no reason for development to go in this direction. After all, it is of paramount importance that young people have the opportunity to present the knowledge acquired during the school years to an exam and to be appreciated for it. And we also want to give this generation of students the opportunity to regularly gain all links with education and studies. The precautionary decision defines the framework within which the Länder can move and adapt the related regulations. In Schleswig-Holstein, this will fall within the scope of what we have been offering in terms of facilitation over the past two years. There are things that have worked and there are things that have not worked.
Each country is required to prepare its own emergency plan.
What are these?
For example, measures to prepare for exams and to extend exam duration have proved effective. The larger selection of exam assignments proved less effective, which was more of a burden on students. Canceling the oral language tests also proved unsuccessful. We did it to get one less appointment, but students appreciate these exams. So there will be some changes from last year.
A massive loss of teachers due to the omicron wave is to be expected in the coming weeks. So far, only a few countries have presented a contingency plan on how to proceed with lesson design. Should the KMK make specs here?
We have created a framework with our resolutions over the past two years. In addition, each country is required to prepare its own emergency plan. In Schleswig-Holstein, schools received a framework plan before the summer holidays to come up with a plan for all eventualities and not only to develop it among the teaching staff, but also to present it to parents at the school conference. This plan should also include how to approach any distance or alternate teaching, how the students will be reached and what the structure of the day will be like. The impression that the schools are not prepared is incorrect.
But when it comes to making up for learning deficits, the best way to do it is at school, during class hours.
Shouldn’t there be minimum standards for distance learning?
Yes, minimum standards are required. But the minimum standard doesn’t mean: at least five hours of videoconferencing a day. The goal is to reach the dimension of the depth of learning also in distance learning. It is above all the methodical and didactic toolbox. Schools have to develop their own concepts and profiles here, as they did before. In the pandemic, however, everyone suddenly thinks there is a master plan that schools must be taught everywhere. I think it is a misunderstanding.
Six months after it started, teachers’ associations and unions are criticizing Corona’s recovery program. There is a shortage of staff and the measures would not bear fruit. Are you satisfied with the Corona recovery program?
First of all, we would have to wait for the first report from the federal states to the federal government, due in March. I find it very difficult to say something about the effectiveness of the program without evaluating it. But it has already been shown which type of measures works best.
A shortage of teachers is on the agenda of KMK president Karin Prien
Which ones are they?
Vacation measures were important for working on psychosocial issues. You allowed the children to have fun while learning again and to be active in groups. But when it comes to making up for learning deficits, the best way to do it is at school, during class hours. Differentiating lessons with additional staff, which allows for smaller learning groups, is a good way. The second choice is the additional afternoon offers. But they should also take place in close connection with the school.
I think that closer cooperation between countries is absolutely essential.
However, due to the great shortage of teachers, it is now difficult to get additional staff for schools. How do you intend to address this issue as KMK President?
Even before the pandemic, federal states committed to the state agreement to train all the teachers they needed in the future. For the first time, countries have made this commitment. While many countries have not yet fulfilled this obligation, everyone must think about how to achieve this.
The pandemic is an opportunity because it has made it clear what great social importance well-trained and sufficient teachers have. So it is a qualitative and quantitative question. During my presidency, we will mainly deal with the qualitative aspect. For example, there is the question of how we qualify lateral and lateral participants so that they have sufficient skills in addition to the teachers who have received their basic training. There will also be recommendations from the KMK this year.
The crown pandemic has shown how difficult it is to define binding criteria for all countries in school policies, which are then also respected. Do you want closer cooperation between federal states and also between federal and state governments?
I think that closer cooperation between countries is absolutely necessary. We have already made great strides with the state agreement, where we have agreed, for example, on comparable framework conditions for Abitur and on over 20 other policy projects. But we will still have to step up cooperation, for example when it comes to digital learning platforms or the use of AI in schools. It makes no sense for countries to act alone here, and it is also too expensive.
But there are also issues like digitization, where there is a national responsibility. Cooperation between federal, state and local authorities needs to be restructured, with a view to sharing tasks, but also financing. The implementation of the digital compact has not been considered and is not efficient. The funds of the digital pact are running out too slowly.
More room for experimentation, but with “exit control”
Do schools need greater personal responsibility?
Above all, we must now lead the debate on how to manage schools in the future. This will also be a topic of my presidency. My firm belief is: schools need more autonomy and must be able to experiment more, even when it comes to learning and putting into practice the lessons of the pandemic. But of course this is only possible with an output control. Not everyone can do what they want. For example, you need to set parameters for how schools handle assessments and data. At the same time, schools need to be viewed differently, because they have very different challenges to overcome.