Most of us can pinpoint exactly when the coronavirus changed our future. It might’ve been a cancelled flight or holiday, or an email from HR with an order to work from home. For the team at GLS, the renowned German language school on Kastanienallee, that moment was a weekend in the middle of March. International borders were closing, putting a halt to the schools usual influx of students from all over the world. On Saturday, March 14, dozens of the school’s teachers, administrators and marketers, sat down at their desks at home to prepare for an uncertain future. “There wasn’t a lot of sleep that weekend,” says Verena Jaeschke, whose mother Barbara founded GLS almost 30 years ago.
This time of year, around 500 international students would attend classes each day, but the coronavirus restrictions mean that, for the first time in years, you won’t hear their chatter buzzing through its green gardens, restaurants and cosy bars. Located on Kastanienallee at the heart of Prenzlauer Berg, GLS is more like a mini-university campus than language school. Renovated in 2014, its sprawling grounds, dotted with shrubs and flowers, has space for around 60 classrooms, two hotels and offices for hundreds of staff. The hallways, usually filled with students from more than 100 countries, are empty, as are the bright classrooms overlooking cafés and clothes shops on the streets below.
That weekend in March, as Germany made plans to close its schools and borders, the GLS staff turned to Zoom, gathering from their homes across Berlin to wrangle with the video conference program that would define their lives for the next few months, and possibly longer. The teachers broke into groups, led by GLS’s director of blended learning Sebastian Nothhelfer, who outlined the ways they would use the online software to teach students, organise group work and administer exams. “We had to train 150 teachers over the weekend,” Jaeschke says. “All online.”
The team navigated their new future with a move to online learning, a monumental step for a famously analogue operation. GLS focusses on immersive language learning. Its cafeterias serve “Prussian style” cuisine (Kartoffelsuppe, Königsberg meatballs anyone?) and organise tours to nearby cities like Hamburg from the front desk. But that’s all on hold for the time being, as students who returned to their home countries connect with their GLS teachers online. “Most of students live abroad, and most of them had to go home when the borders began to close,” Jaeschke says “We were able to keep 50 percent of our students enrolled. We can’t meet in person, but we can keep the cultural exchange. You can be sitting at home in Mexico meeting people from all over the world.”
GLS’s financial hit began as cancellations grew from late February, as students cancelled their trips to Berlin. But they’ve also been able to attract new learners, many of whom signed up for classes from their home countries. “The students who continued their studies online liked it, so they told their friends,” Jaeschke says.
All of GLS’s courses, from standard German (starting at €48) to legal German (from €600 for 20 lessons) are available online. And while you won’t find students hunched over desks, prepping for early-morning exams in GLS’s student accommodation, the team have discovered a new market: renting them out to Berliners looking for alternative work spaces. “We hit a spot with this,” Jaeschke laughs. “Most of them have kids at home.” With a fridge, coffee machine and bathroom, these self-contained rooms, 70 of which are located inside the beautiful Hotel Oderberger (a reconverted 19th-century public bathhouse), are an office-away-from-home for Berliners looking for peace and quiet during work hours.
Even as Berlin begins its slow rise out of lockdown – high schools opened this week – the future remains unclear for GLS. Jaeschke still isn’t sure when the school will be permitted to reopen, and they’re waiting on what rules will be in place once they can. “The 1.5m space between everyone, the disinfection and regular cleaning of door handles – that’s no problem,” she says. “We’ll see about the other regulations and decide on how and when we can open. Until then, we continue everything online.”