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How can schools best protect pupils during corona times?

Published on 10/08/2020

Swiss teachers have warned that the new school year will be heavily marked by the coronavirus. The key issues: masks, policing pupils’ quarantine and what to do about the educational gap made worse by nationwide school closures earlier this year.

“Even if the school year is starting in a regular way, we have to be prepared for further school closures,” Switzerland’s two main teaching associations said on Monday at a joint press conference in the capital Bern. Health is a top priority, they underlined.

Their comments came as pupils in eleven cantons started back at school; the rest of the country will be following on over the next few weeks.

Lessons should be learned from the last school year to ensure adequate protection measures at schools over the next terms,  the German-speaking Federation of Swiss Teachers LCH and its French-speaking counterpart SER said. In particular they called for more coordination among the cantons, which are in charge of educational matters – which can be seen in the fact that some cantons have opted for masks for older pupils this term and others not – and for teaching associations to be included in the federal authorities’ decision-making process.

Autumn term in the spotlight

On March 13, the Swiss government took the unprecedented step of ordering the nationwide closure of all schools in the country, overriding the cantons’ authority.

Whereas primary schools mostly went back to class teaching after re-opening on May 11, older pupils in post-compulsory schooling (vocational and baccalaureate schools) were only allowed back in small numbers from June 8. Many continued with distance learning.

All eyes are currently on how cantons, back in charge of schools since the lockdown ended, will manage the situation for the autumn term.

Concerns have been raised of a possible spike in coronavirus cases after the holidays as pupils return from trips abroad, including countries on Switzerland’s “risk list”, with travellers having to quarantine for ten days upon return. Older pupils will also be going back to full-time teaching.

Several cantons have already told teachers not to “police” pupils about where they went on their holidays. Keeping to quarantine is a parental responsibility, they argue. However, some schools  have said that they will send children home if it is ascertained that they have not kept to quarantine, but only after having consulted the parents.

Masks and health protection officers

Hygiene measures like hand-washing and social distancing will still apply at all schools in the next term. But while there will generally be no mask wearing in primary schools (younger pupils are not considered primary transmitters of the virus in Switzerland), several cantons will require masks to be worn among post-compulsory pupils, aged 15-16, when social distancing of at least 1.5 metres cannot be maintained.

This will be the case across the French-speaking part of Switzerland, which has announced a coordinated approach to mask-wearing among older pupils. The German-speaking cantons have no such coordination in place, although some cantons, like Lucerne and Bern, will insist on masks. This piecemeal approach has already been criticised by teaching unions. 

On Monday, teachers called for a professionalisation of health risk management in schools, including the training and installation of health protection officers.

Educational gap

Also of great concern is the educational gap – a long-standing problem in Switzerland, with pupils of well-educated parents more likely to progress academically than those from more disadvantaged backgrounds – which widened during the lockdown, teachers said.

An estimated one-fifth of pupils fell through the remote learning net during school closures, as swissinfo.ch previously reported. The reasons given were a lack of motivation and/or lack of support and resources, such as a computer or quiet place to work, at home.

There must be a long-term focus on pupils who fells behind during the lockdown or who developed psychological questions during this time, the teachers’ organisations said. “This will need targeted resources which must be available during the whole school year,” they said.

This includes access to school social workers, early language learning and wide-ranging daycare facilities around schools, also in more rural areas, the teachers added. Many primary schools in particular require pupils to go home for lunch and do not have afternoon school.

Ticino – hard hit canton 

Meanwhile the southern Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, which was particularly hard hit by the coronavirus due to its proximity to Italy, has been outlining its plans for the autumn term. It was the first canton to announce it was to close its schools even before the nationwide lockdown – and is the last canton to reopen them fully.

On Monday, officials said they were in favour of schools reopening on August 31, but with no obligation for pupils to wear masks, at all levels of school (although this may change for older pupils.depending on developments). Teachers will have to wear masks in public areas like corridors and staff rooms, but it won’t be compulsory inside classrooms.