Fears raised over plans to re-open schools amid coronavirus pandemic

Soon full again? An empty classroom in a Swiss primary school Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Switzerland’s compulsory schools are set to re-open next month after a coronavirus lockdown, but not everyone is happy about it. One outstanding question is how to ensure social distancing and adequate hygiene during the school day.

This content was published on April 26, 2020 - 11:00

“I am looking forward to welcoming the children and seeing how they are. I am interested in seeing how they have coped with these weeks of remote learning,” Alex Messerli, president of the Canton Lucerne Association of Teachers, and himself a primary school teacher, told Swiss public television SRF earlier this week.External link

But he also has some reservations.

“How many children will come? When will they come? Will they all come together? Where are we going to teach them?” he said. One measure that may be particularly difficult to practise at school is social distancing.

Compulsory schoolsExternal link (kindergartens, primary schools and lower secondary schools for pupils aged 12-15) are set to re-open on May 11, almost two months after they were closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

+ Read our story about how pupils, parents and teachers have been coping with remote learning

Higher education establishments, as well as upper secondary and vocational schools should follow on June 8. However, the schedule depends on there being no significant increase in COVID-19 cases, the government has stressedExternal link. A final confirmation is expected on April 29.

Why now?

The government believes that compulsory schools can re-open because children are not the main vectors of Covid-19, basing its decision on input from paediatricians specialising in infectiology. This statement has caused some controversy - see our article below - and opinions remain divided.

The government is holding steadfast to its course. “Children can go back to school without taking any risks,” Daniel Koch,  the country’s head of infectious diseases and a leading figure in the pandemic response, reiterated at a press conference on April 22.

Teachers: unanswered questions

Like teacher Messerli, the Federation of Swiss Teachers (LCH) has its concerns about re-opening schools. It has called for a national protection concept that includes practical solutions for how pupils and teachers can be kept safe during lessons, breaktimes, bathroom breaks and in post-school childcare settings.

Those belonging to risk groups need adequate protection or should be excused from face-to-face teaching, it added in a statement on TuesdayExternal link.  And pupils with special needs need extra support. First indications are that the already existing gap between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils in Switzerland has widened during these weeks of remote learning, the LCH said.

+ Read more on the subject: what are the long-term effects of school closures?

+ One fifth of pupils ‘falling through the remote learning net’

The LCH’s French-speaking counterpart, the SER, has been particularly vocal. Guarantees for pupil and teacher safety must be made clear on April 29. “Without them, schools can’t be re-opened,” it said in a statementExternal link.

It pointed to an “incoherence” between the abrupt closing of schools to protect pupils during the pandemic and the possible decision to re-open schools “without the scientific elements having really changed”. 

“Schools should not be the vector of a new pandemic,” the SER said.

Parents concerned

While some parents have welcomed the decision to re-open schools after weeks of home office and home schooling, others have not.

“Frankly, I am not planning to let my kids go back to school, no matter what Koch says,” tweeted Adriano AguzziExternal link, a prominent professor of neuropathology at the University Hospital of Zurich.

There have also been online petitionsExternal link against the re-openings, with resistance particularly strong in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, as SRF has reportedExternal link.

However, parents may risk a fineExternal link if they do not send their children without a good reason, as compulsory school is obligatory in Switzerland.

For teacher Messerli, children should only go back to school if they can actually have lessons. If the effort of opening schools outweighs the usefulness of doing so, then “we have a question mark here”. The ball is now in the authorities’ court, teachers and parents say.

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