Germany’s long pandemic school closures hit migrant students hardest

When a teacher told Syrian mother Um Wajih that her 9-year-old son’s German had deteriorated during the six-week closure of her Berlin school, she was saddened but not surprised.

“Wajih had learned German quickly, and we were very proud of him,” said the 25-year-old mother of two.

“I knew without training he would forget what he had learned but I couldn’t help him.

Her son now faces another year in a ‘welcome class’ for migrant children until his German is good enough to join native peers at a school in Berlin’s poor Neukoelln neighborhood.

School closures – which in Germany have stood at around 30 weeks since March last year, compared to just 11 in France – have further widened the educational gap between migrant and native pupils in Germany, among the highest in the country. industrialized world.

Even before the pandemic, the dropout rate of migrants was 18.2%, almost three times the national average.

Closing this gap is crucial, otherwise it risks derailing Germany’s efforts to integrate more than two million people who have applied for asylum in the past seven years, mostly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. , according to experts.

German language skills and their maintenance – are essential.

“The biggest impact of the pandemic on integration is the sudden lack of contact with the Germans,” said Thomas Liebig of the OECD, a group of industrialized countries based in Paris. “Most migrant children do not speak German at home, so contact with the locals is crucial.”

More than 50% of pupils born in Germany to migrant parents do not speak German at home, the highest rate in the 37 members of the OECD and against 35% in France. This figure rises to 85% among pupils not born in Germany.

Migrant parents, who may lack academic and language skills in German, have at times struggled to help children with home schooling and to make up for lost learning. They have also had to deal with more frequent school closings as they often live in poorer areas with higher COVID-19 infection rates.

Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government and the leaders of Germany’s 16 states, who run local education policy, have chosen to close schools during each of the three waves of coronavirus while keeping factories open to protect the economy.

“The pandemic has amplified the problems of migrants,” said Muna Naddaf, who heads a counseling project for migrant mothers run by Deacon, a charity of the Evangelical Church in Neukoelln.

“They suddenly had to deal with more bureaucracy, like administering coronavirus tests on their child or setting up an appointment for the vaccination. There is a lot of confusion. People have asked us if it is true that drinking fresh ginger tea protects against the virus and if vaccination causes infertility. “

Naddaf matched Um Wajih with Noor Zayed, an Arab-German mother and mentor, who advised her to keep her son and daughter active and energized during lockdowns.

Long-standing flaws in the German education system, such as weak digital infrastructure that has hampered online education and short school days that force parents to take over, have exacerbated migrants’ problems .


According to the Teachers’ Union, only 45% of the 40,000 German schools had fast Internet access before the pandemic and schools are open until 1:30 p.m. compared to at least until 3:30 p.m. in France.

Schools in poor neighborhoods probably lacked digital infrastructure, and parents could not afford laptops or after-school care.

Between 2000 and 2013, Germany succeeded in halving migrant dropouts to around 10% by increasing language assistance in nurseries and schools. But dropouts have crept in in recent years as more students from countries with lower educational standards like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Sudan have joined German classes.

The teachers’ union says 20% of the 10.9 million students in Germany need extra tutoring to be successful this school year and the total number of dropouts is expected to double to more than 100,000.

“The educational gap between migrants and natives will widen,” said Professor Axel Pluennecke of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. “We are going to need massive investments in education after the pandemic, including targeted tutoring, to avoid the loss of a generation of students.”

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