Video conferencing with citizen participation: the hour of the emoji

Bremen’s Senator for Education Claudia Bogedan defends her Corona policy. She took questions from citizens in a video conference.

At home or not? Where learning takes place is the subject of bitter battles Photo: Oitver Mueller/Imago

Claudia Bogedan (SPD) is quite satisfied with her decisions. At a panel discussion – online, of course – Bremen’s children’s and education senator defended her agency’s course on face-to-face teaching in the midst of the lockdown and fielded questions from citizens*.

The SPD state association had invited the participants, and chairwoman Sascha Aulepp was the moderator. In contrast to classical conferences, the participants had limited opportunities to contribute. Contributions and questions could be sent to the state association via chat. To prevent the many participants from constantly interrupting each other, the microphones were muted until it was their turn to speak. The audience quickly discovered the communicative potential of emojis: clapping hands, sad faces and thumbs pointing either up or down accompanied the conference.

Bogedan spoke of the large-scale testing at schools – and drew a positive conclusion. Of more than 18,000 students and teachers, only 58 tested positive, a rate of 0.3 percent. For Bogedan, this is proof that schools are not hotbeds of infection.

Thumbs down dominated the proceedings at the edge of the screen, expressing silent opposition. Stefan Trapp, state chairman of the professional association of pediatricians and adolescents, however, agreed with the senator. There is no medical evidence that schools and kindergartens are places of infection.

Sibylle Wohlfeil from the school staff council vehemently disagreed. Not even a quarter of the city’s 84,400 students and teachers had been tested. And since the tests were voluntary, the results were not representative. "That schools are not spreaders of viruses can’t hold up like that." She underscored the call for half-group instruction. "Presence and distance at the same time sounds good," she said, "but for the teachers this cannot be done in parallel."

Thorsten Maab, Bremen School Leadership Association

"In some elementary schools, full classes are present and that doesn’t work"

The assumption that infections hardly happen in schools is not true, Thorsten Maab of the Bremen School Management Association also said. It is important for the cohesion and the community that students are in the school. But he advocated for small, protected groups. "In some elementary schools, full classes are present, and that doesn’t work."

One student’s emotional contribution caused a stir. In a quivering voice, the high school graduate reported that she was approaching final exams with a lot of anxiety, frustration and anger. She denounced an "unbelievable failure on the part of the education authority." She said the tablets have by no means arrived on time for everyone, and without face-to-face instruction, she doesn’t see herself being able to write her high school diploma this school year.

She praised Bogedan for wanting to fulfill her educational mandate, but open schools with strict private contact restrictions at the same time were incomprehensible. Preventing illness and death should be an absolute priority. "High school graduation can be made up," she said, "but people’s health and lives don’t come back."

Bogedan appeased. Restrictions in the private sector, culture and sports should mean that schools, daycare centers and businesses can continue. She said it was important for students* to be able to graduate this year as well, so as not to be at a disadvantage.

The other contributions were at times calm and level-headed, at other times agitated and passionate. Some supported the state government’s course, others vehemently opposed it.

Bogedan listened. But not all possible objections were heard: the new, more contagious mutations of the coronavirus went completely unmentioned – although people asked about them via chat. Nor was there any mention of parents who don’t put their children in daycare but still have to pay the monthly fee. In general, there was hardly any talk of daycare centers, except when educators spoke and criticized the conditions in their facilities as unsafe.

Bogedan’s approach is not only controversial among citizens: In Bremen, a consensual regulation should actually be found in the Senate during the course of Thursday – without a special path for Bremen, according to Mayor Andreas Bovenschulte (SPD). But the state government does not yet seem to be in such agreement: "There is still a need for consultation on details," the education senator’s spokeswoman announced on Thursday.

At the end of the conference, Bogedan once again swore to the audience that Bremen could overcome this crisis with united forces. It seemed to go down well: The majority of thumbs pointed upward.