How Swiss schools abroad are adapting amid Covid-19

Online learning as happened in the Swiss school in Bergamo, Italy Educationsuisse


This content was published on July 21, 2020 - 11:00

Situated in some of the world’s coronavirus hotpots, Switzerland’s 18 official schools abroad have been hard hit by Covid-19 school closures. Now they are looking to the future.

“They all had to change very quickly to distance learning, especially in China and Italy. They were not prepared for such a radical step as school closures in these countries came unexpectedly,” said Barbara Sulzer Smith, director of the Swiss schools abroad body educationsuisse. She noted that other schools where outbreaks happened later had a bit more lead time and could draw on the experience of the Chinese and Italian schools.

Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch

Pressure

As school closures happened around the world - also in Switzerland for two months – there was a great deal of pressure for the fee-paying Swiss schools abroad to carry on with classes, according to Sulzer Smith.

A special challenge was keeping up pupils’ German, as many only learn it at school. Educationsuisse therefore started the DigiDeutsch programme to link upper secondary school pupils in Switzerland – many without much to do during lockdown – with pupils in Italy and Spain for conversation lessons.

It was also difficult to establish whether Swiss teachers working abroad should stay or return to Switzerland.

The DigiDeutsch had 98 students from Switzerland and over 100 from Spain and Italy in the end J. Wüger

“Some of our teachers wanted to go back to Switzerland but it was our position that they should stay in their countries because we needed to know that they could come back when schools reopened,” Sulzer Smith said, noting that a few teachers did have to go back because of difficult circumstances.

In addition, financial pressure on the schools is now “massive”, according to the educationsuisse director. Some parents wanted fee refunds, while others were not able to pay anymore due to the economic impact of the coronavirus. Sulzer Smith estimates that pupil re-registration for next term is down by 10% on average.

Rome: social distancing at school

Italy has been at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in Europe, with more than 244,000 cases and 35,000 deaths.

The Swiss School Rome closed as part of a nationwide lockdown on March 5. Staff worked hard to get homework out to the pupils for the next week and to educate themselves further about digital tools. “Distance learning started just 10 days later,” headteacher Claudia Engeler indicated.

The Swiss School Rome is preparing to re-open on September 9, as part of Italy’s easing of pandemic measures, with social distancing of two metres between teacher and pupil and one metre between the pupils. “But we can only really act once we have the guidelines from the Italian government. These could vary right up to just before school begins – depending on the number of new infections,” Engeler said.

Bogota: pulling together

Latin America is still in the midst of the pandemic. In the Colombian capital, Bogota, home to the Swiss school Colegio Helvetia, the mayor has ordered strict, rolling two-week quarantines in certain neighbourhoods. (The capital has 32% of the country’s nearly 134,000 cases, according to Reuters).

The Colegio Helvetia closed on March 13. The government changed its mind overnight on the issue of school closures, but the school still managed to get its Helvetia en Casa distance learning project out to its pupils “in record time”, as it states in the latest educationsuisse newsletter. In some cases, the school used school buses to drop lesson plans to younger pupils. It was however, “a steep learning curve” for all, the newsletter says.

The school year would normally restart on August 18. The Colegio hopes for a slow return to on-site teaching, but school co-head Cedric Schuppisser told swissinfo.ch that this will involve at most a “fifty-fifty approach” until the end of 2020. This means half of the pupils will be at home with the rest at school, swapping each week.

Uncertainties, changes 

Meanwhile, in China the government has imposed such tough requirements on schools to re-open, like health checks on staff and pupils as well as structural measures, that it’s very difficult to fulfil them all, Sulzer Smith said.

So it’s not yet clear what will happen to the Swiss School Beijing, the newest Swiss school abroad, which is part of a larger international school. Another problem: the new Swiss teacher due to travel to Beijing cannot get a work permit, so cannot enter the country.

With all these uncertainties, the next few years are likely to be very challenging, especially financially, Sulzer Smith said. The Swiss schools are not alone: other international schools, like the German ones, are also suffering due to the coronavirus crisis. However, the Swiss government has said it will step in with some extra funding for the schools, Sulzer Smith said.

But if there has been one positive effect of the coronavirus closure, it’s the fact that being forced into distance learning has – as teachers in Switzerland have found as well –  “certainly moved us a big step forwards in the digital area,” as the Colegio Helvetia’s Schuppisser puts it. Some of those changes might be here to stay.

On July 23, 2020 the article was amended with the latest figures for Italy.

Swiss schools abroad

Network of 18; all Swiss government-approved

Have around 7,500 pupils in total: locals, expats, circa 20% have a Swiss passport (it is no longer required to be Swiss to attend)

Fee-paying but are sponsored by a canton who gives pedagogical support; financial support comes from the government

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