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Swiss schools abroad face continued uncertainty as new term begins

The Colegio Helvetia in Bogota, Colombia, in pre-Covid times Educationsuisse

Many of Switzerland’s official schools outside of the country are still unsure whether they will reopen for the new term after being shut down due to the coronavirus. The government has offered financial help.

This content was published on August 21, 2020 - 09:09
SWI swissinfo.ch

In Switzerland most schools reopened after the nationwide lockdown in some form before the summer holidays. Many schools have already started the new term under strict hygiene measures, with the latest wave of pupils going back on Monday.

But this is not the case for the Swiss schools abroad. As we have previously reported, these 18 institutions are situated in some of the world’s coronavirus hotspots. All had to close due to local lockdowns. Some of the countries, like Colombia, are still hard hit: the South American nation had more than 460,000 cases and 15,000 deaths by mid August, putting it  in the ten most affected countries worldwide, according to Johns HopkinsExternal link.

“We hope the schools can open in Italy and Spain, but we know some of the schools, like those in Colombia and Peru, will not open -  they don’t even have a date yet,” Barbara Sulzer Smith, director of the Swiss schools abroad body educationsuisseExternal link, told swissinfo.ch in an update to the situation.

“As for China, they hope to open on September 1 with normal classes in classrooms but this can change,” she said.

Kai Reusser / swissinfo.ch

Problems with getting teachers into countries to take up their new posts in Swiss schools have eased somewhat, Sulzer Smith reported. Swiss embassies have helped to organise special flights for teachers to Thailand and Colombia from Frankfurt, Germany. Teachers (of which there are 55 taking up new posts) will have to go into quarantine in their respective arrival countries. But the new Swiss teacher for the Beijing school is still in Switzerland waiting for her visa, according to Sulzer Smith.

Government help

Swiss schools abroad are private, fee-paying institutions offering a Swiss approach to education, which receive some funding from the Swiss government. It is not necessary for pupils to be Swiss, although 20% hold a Swiss passport.

But the coronavirus pandemic has hit hard: there are an estimated 10% fewer pupil registrations and some parents are no longer able to pay the fees, Sulzer Smith says. Schools are also having to invest in extra hygiene measures or in technical infrastructure for ongoing distance learning. Extra income from daycare offers or sports clubs is no longer coming in.

The Federal Office of CultureExternal link - which oversees the Swiss schools abroad from the government side - has called the schools’ financial situation “urgent”. On August 12, the Swiss government approved the culture office’s proposal for extra funding.

Switzerland already supports these schools with CHF18 million ($19.8 million) a year. They are now being offered access to an extra CHF7 million: CHF3.5 million supplementary credit which still needs to be approved by parliament (and which was done so on September 10)  plus CHF3.5 million from the Federal Office of Culture’s existing credit for Swiss schools abroad.

“This emergency aid will be paid out during this year,” Anne Weibel from the culture office told swissinfo.ch via email.

To access the funds, schools will have to put in a request in which they set out the total financial damage that cannot be covered with existing financial reserves, Weibel explained. They must also show how they plan to stabilise their financial situation. It is important that the schools can maintain their normal educational services, with extra government funding when necessary, the culture office spokeswoman said.

Sulzer Smith says that Educationsuisse welcomes the additional funding.

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