A foreign language children's book in the hands of social worker Noor Zayed at a migrant integration project in Berlin, Germany on May 4, 2021 | Photo: Annegret Hilse/Reuters
A foreign language children's book in the hands of social worker Noor Zayed at a migrant integration project in Berlin, Germany on May 4, 2021 | Photo: Annegret Hilse/Reuters

Migrant children and teenagers in Germany are disproportionately affected by the country's longer than average lockdowns, experts say. They warn that the widening education gap between migrant pupils and their native peers could derail efforts to integrate the hundreds of thousands of asylum seekers in Germany.

"My son had picked up German fast, and we were very proud of him," said Um Wajih, a Syrian mother of two. But then came the pandemic.

During the six-week shutdown that started in March last year, Wajih's son wasn't able to attend his Berlin school in person. Consequently, the 9-year-old's German worsened significantly, a teacher told her. Wajih was saddened but not surprised.

"I knew that without practice he would forget what he had learned, but I couldn't help him," the 25-year-old told Reuters.

"Wajih's son now faces another year in a 'welcome class' for migrant children until his German is good enough to join his native peers at a school in Berlin's impoverished neighborhood of Neukölln," Reuters reports.

Since March last year, some schools in Germany were closed for around 30 weeks during COVID-19 related lockdown measures -- almost three times as long as in France. The decision to make students learn from home "further widened the educational gap between migrant and native pupils in Germany," which, according to Reuters, was already the highest in the industrialized world before the pandemic.

18.2% of all migrants had already dropped out of school in Germany before the coronavirus crisis -- almost three times the national average. Experts say that reducing that gap is key to integrating the more than two million people who have applied for asylum in the past seven years, mainly coming from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Critical skills

To acquire and maintain German language skills, being able to talk to native speakers on a regular basis is crucial. "The biggest impact of the pandemic on integration is the sudden lack of contact with Germans," Thomas Liebig of the OECD told Reuters.

Without contact with natives, Liebig says, most migrant children don't get to speak much German as German isn't spoken widely at their homes.

The Stadtteilmütter migrant integration project in Berlin's Neukölln district on May 4, 2021 | Photo: Annegret Hilse/Reuters
The Stadtteilmütter migrant integration project in Berlin's Neukölln district on May 4, 2021 | Photo: Annegret Hilse/Reuters

In fact, more than half of all second-generation migrant pupils, i.e. those born in Germany to migrant parents, don't speak German at home at all. Not only is that the highest rate among all 37 members of the OECD, it is also significantly higher than the corresponding number in neighboring France (35%). Among first-generation migrant pupils -- those born outside Germany --, that figure rises to 85%.

Around the world, about 1.5 billion students in 188 countries have been affected by school closures, according to a recent OECD report.

"Migrant parents who may lack academic and German language skills have sometimes struggled to help children with home schooling and to catch up on lost learning. They have also had to contend with more frequent school closures as they often live in poorer areas with higher COVID-19 infection rates," Reuters reports.

Contentious school closures

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's government and the heads of the 16 German states, which are all individually in charge of implementing local education policies as part of Germany's federalist government structure, closed schools during each of the three coronavirus waves that hit Germany in the past year. Their decision to enforce remote learning angered many, including family groups -- particularly since other parts of society stayed open to protect the economy, such as factories.

"The pandemic amplified migrants' problems," Muna Naddaf, who leads an advice project for migrant mothers in Neukölln, told Reuters. "They suddenly had to deal with more bureaucracy like administering coronavirus tests on their child or arranging a vaccination appointment. There is a lot of confusion. We've had people ask us if it is true that drinking fresh ginger tea protects against the virus and if vaccination causes infertility."

Naddaf connected Um Wajih, the aforementioned mother-of-two from Syria, with Noor Zayed, an Arab-German mother and mentor. Zayed gave Wajih tips on how to keep her son and daughter active and engaged during the remote learning periods.

Social worker Noor Zayed of the Stadtteilmuetter migrant integration project run by Protestant charity Diakonie speaks to Syrian mother Um Wajih in Berlin's Neukölln district on May 4, 2021 | Photo: Annegret Hilse/Reuters
Social worker Noor Zayed of the Stadtteilmuetter migrant integration project run by Protestant charity Diakonie speaks to Syrian mother Um Wajih in Berlin's Neukölln district on May 4, 2021 | Photo: Annegret Hilse/Reuters

Last year's sudden switch to online courses, however, also exposed major flaws in Germany's education system including its weak digital infrastructure, which hampered online teaching. Before the pandemic, only 45% of Germany's 40,000 schools had fast internet access installed, according to the German Teachers Union.

To make matters worse, schools in poorer neighborhoods sometimes don't even have internet connections, and parents have often found themselves being unable to afford laptops or after-school care, as daycare closures and shorter school days left parents having to compensate, exacerbating the problems for migrant families in particular as a result.

And while the typical French school stays open until at least 3:30 in the afternoon, German schools are usually closed by 1:30 p.m. making supervision and after-school care even bigger hurdles to overcome for migrant families in Germany.

'Lost generation'

While Germany managed to halve migrant school dropouts between 2000 and 2013 to around 10% -- for instance by boosting language assistance in nurseries and schools -- drop-out rates have again risen in recent years.

According to the German Teachers Union, 20% of the 10.9 million pupils in Germany need additional tutoring to successfully complete the ongoing school year. It also said that the total number of drop-outs is expected to double to more than 100,000.

"The educational gap between migrants and native Germans will grow," said Prof. Axel Pluennecke of the Cologne Institute for Economic Research. "We are going to need to see massive investments in education after the pandemic, including targeted tutoring, to avoid a lost generation of pupils."

This article is based on a Reuters feature

 

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