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Universities return to distance learning, schools stay open

Students wearing masks in a lecture hall at the University of Zurich in September Keystone / Alexandra Wey

Swiss universities are to go back to distance learning from Monday, while schools nationwide stay open – under conditions – according to new anti-coronavirus measures announced by the government on Wednesday. 

This content was published on October 28, 2020 - 16:15

Masks will have to be worn from Thursday in Secondary II level schools, the level that follows obligatory education.

This is the second time universities have halted in-person university classes after the lockdown in spring.

However, widespread cases of Covid-19 at universities – as seen in the United Kingdom or the United States, for example – have so far been relatively rare.

The highest profile was when undergraduate students at the École hôtelière de Lausanne(EHL), one of the most prestigious hospitality management schools in the world, were placed in quarantine on September 23 after several coronavirus outbreaks.

Several universities, including the University of Lucerne, the University of Geneva and the federal technology institute ETH Zurich had already made announcements concerning distance in the days preceding Wednesday. The University of Bern was even earlier: October 19.

On Wednesday the University of Bern made the wearing of masks compulsory and lectures and tutorials would be taught online.

Schools: open

On March 13 the Swiss government took the unprecedented step of ordering the nationwide closure of all schools, overriding the cantons’ authority (cantons are in charge of educational matters in Switzerland).

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.

During this time there were concerns that disadvantaged pupils were falling behind in their learning.

Is it enough?

Since then cantons have been charge of schools’ protection concepts. But calls have been mounting from experts for more targeted and nationally applicable measures for schools.

“We must introduce obligatory mask wearing in schools straightaway, also in primary schools,” Geneva epidemiologist Olivia Keiser told the Tages-Anzeiger newspaper on Tuesday. There should also be better airing of classrooms to reduce risk of infection via aerosols, she said. But she is not sure whether the mask measures will be enough or whether “perhaps partial school closures are necessary”.

However, the government, cantons, teachers and other experts are against school closures.

Questions have also been raised about how much younger children pass on the virus. The current thinking by the Swiss authorities is that they are low risk.

Reactions

In reaction to the government's announcement, the heads of the two main teaching unions LCR and SER said on Wednesday that while they welcomed obligatory masks in class for Secondary II level, they had hoped for more rules for primary school.

Yves Flückiger, president of the umbrella group swissuniversities, said that institutions expected gaps in learning, student isolation and problems in research as a result. He told the NZZ newspaper that universities had to do everything in their power to maintain educational quality.

"This could mean for example that we keep libraries open. One semester of remote learning could be enriching, but a second one is already problematic and a third would influence the quality of upcoming degrees," he said.

Communication could only partially take place over distance learning. This type of teaching could not replace face-to-face exchange, Flückiger warned.

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