Cantons divided over mask requirement for older pupils

Some pupils wore masks when upper secondary schools reopened in June Keystone / Laurent Gillieron

This content was published on August 7, 2020 minutes

Older pupils should wear face masks at school if they cannot keep to social distancing, several cantons announced on Friday. But the situation across the country varies.

Schools in eleven cantons across Switzerland will reopen after the summer holidays on Monday, August 10 – with others following over the rest of the month – which has led to a flurry of announcements on Friday over which anti-corona measures are to be enforced.

In Switzerland, cantons are in charge of educational matters and, therefore, anti-corona measures in schools. Whereas most primary and lower secondary schools have been open in some form since May 11 – when the nationwide lockdown ended – upper secondary schools were only allowed to reopen on June 8 under strict hygiene measures. Many continued with a mix of distance learning and smaller group lessons in school until the summer holidays.

All eyes are now on how these schools, whose pupils are aged 15 and older, will manage the autumn term.

Masks on

Full classroom teaching can take place in upper secondary schools if hygiene measures are respected, the Intercantonal Conference of Public Education for French and Italian-speaking Switzerland said on FridayExternal link, setting out its member cantons’ coordinated plan. This includes older pupils and staff wearing masks if social distancing of 1.5 metres cannot be respected, the organisation wrote.

This move was welcomedExternal link by the Union of French-speaking teachers (SER), which has been calling for a uniform approach to schools’ coronavirus measures.

Cantons Geneva, Vaud and Valais made official announcements on their policy on Friday. Bilingual Canton Bern also saidExternal link it would also follow the masks and social distancing line. Among the German-speaking cantons, Lucerne (the first to announce such measures, and the strictest), Aargau, Schaffhausen and Basel Country have already said they would require masks for pupils aged 15 or older when social distancing of at least 1.5 metres is not possible (2.25m2 per person in a classroom in Aargau).

Masks off

But there is no planned mask requirement in upper secondary schools in cantons Zurich, Basel City, St Gallen, Graubünden, Thurgau, Zug, Obwalden, Schwyz, Solothurn, Uri and Appenzell Outer Rhodes, according to the Keystone-SDA news agency.

Some of these cantons, such as Basel City and Graubünden, have however recommended the wearing of masks during laboratory lessons, where it is hard to keep to the 1.5 metres distance.

Primary and lower secondary schools (which together make up compulsory schooling in Switzerland) are so far exempt from any mandatory mask wearing.


The differing approach among the cantons has come under criticism from teachers. Dagmar Rösler, president of the Federation of Swiss Teachers, said she felt there was a large acceptance for obligatory mask wearing. It is hard to enforce social distancing in class and masks would help to make the situation less tense when classrooms are full, she told Swiss public television SRFExternal link.

Lucius Hartmann, president of the Swiss Association of Baccalaureate School Teachers, was also in favour of making masks mandatory at upper secondary level, even if it impacted lessons. “It will be harder to communicate and after seven hours in a mask, your concentration is not the same,” he told SRF. But the advantage of being more relaxed in class outweighed this, he said.

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