Covid 19: teachers call for stricter measures for new school year

School start: a teacher with year 6 primary pupils in Neuenhof, canton Aargau, on Monday. Children in other cantons will go back to school in the coming weeks Keystone / Georgios Kefalas

Mass coronavirus testing in schools should continue, teachers have said, as concerns grow that the new school term will bring a spike in Delta-related coronavirus cases.

This content was published on August 10, 2021 - 09:00

The coronavirus pandemic is not yet over, warned officials at a joint press conference of the two largest teaching associations in Switzerland in Bern on Monday. Protecting the health of pupils and teachers is still of the highest priority.

The call comes as the first pupils returned to school after the summer holidays in the northern canton of Aargau. Pupils in other cantons will return to school in the coming weeks. Health measures in schools, like social distancing, handwashing, and ventilating remain in place for the new term, although older pupils are no longer generally required to wear masks (although cantons can decide differently should they wish to).

Continuing regular mass testing of pupils would quickly identify new cases, said the German-speaking Federation of Swiss Teachers LCHExternal link and its French-speaking counterpart SER.External link

“Cantons that already implemented regular Corona tests in schools, such as Graubünden, found them a successful measure. It is up to each canton to decide if they want to implement regular corona tests in schools [in the new term],” Beat A. Schwendimann, board member of the LCH, told in email comments.

Cantons Aargau, Bern, Zug and Lucerne for example have already indicated that they will continue with mass testing. Cantons are in charge of educational matters - and related Covid decisions - in Switzerland. Decisions can also be made at the lower, communal level.

Teachers have also called for CO2 measuring devices in classrooms to measure air quality.

Vaccine question

The question of vaccination – of both teachers and pupils – remains a tricky one. The associations are calling for voluntary, but priority vaccinations for teachers, Schwendimann said.

“As an essential and highly exposed workforce, teachers, who want to get vaccinated should have high priority. It remains each teacher’s right to decide for or against a vaccination,” he added.

Currently the over 12s are eligible for the coronavirus vaccination with Pfizer and now ModernaExternal link in Switzerland. Canton Aargau has saidExternal link for example that it plans mobile vaccination stations on school grounds pupils aged above 15, with a possible extension to those aged 12 plus later on. Schwendimann welcomed this initiative for those who would like to be vaccinated.

There is no obligation for teachers to be vaccinated in Switzerland, or like in Italy, show that they have been vaccinated, tested or have recovered from a coronavirus infection.

Elsewhere: schools and corona

Italy: plans to reopen schools for autumn term, teachers will need green pass to show they have either been vaccinated with at least one dose, have recovered from Covid-19 within the past six months, or have tested negative in the previous 48 hours.

Germany: also hoping to reopen schools fully, but likely under measures like testing, masks, ventilation and alternating lessons, for the next term.

England: many of the remaining Covid restrictions in English schools have been stopped, including changing from August 16 the rules about self-isolation for close contacts of a Covid-positive case. In Scotland, covid mitigation measures will be maintained for at least six weeks after the summer break, although there will be a change to self-isolation rules for whole classes.

US: state and local officials are currently split on whether children should wear masks in schools, as the number of child cases of Covid-19 risesExternal link just as children return to school.

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Swiss way

Switzerland, unlike its neighbours Germany and Italy, kept its schools open all the time last school year. Schools have only been in shutdown once since the pandemic began - in spring 2020.

“The federal government, in collaboration with the cantons, aimed to find a difficult, but ultimately quite successful balance between protecting the population and keeping services and businesses open,” Schwendimann said.

Schools have strict safety and hygiene measures, which have been adjusted according to the coronavirus situation. For example, last October, the government stepped in and made it mandatory for older pupils to wear masks (this was dropped shortly before the summer holidays).

“Teachers and school principals worked extraordinarily hard to provide a continued education for all pupils,” Schwendimann said.

Post-holiday fears

However, coronavirus cases are on the rise in Switzerland. The country posted 3,144  coronavirus cases for Monday and the weekend, making the seven-day average 1,003, up 35% on the week before. ExpertsExternal link in Switzerland have already raised the prospect of the Delta variant spreading more rapidly among the unvaccinated population, especially the under 12s.

Health Minister Alain Berset said at the weekend that any further relaxation of coronavirus measures would depend on how cases develop after the holidays. He specifically mentioned children going back to school as a factor.

The shadow of the pandemic will therefore continue into the next year. However, teaching organisations are hopeful that the Swiss way will continue to be a successful one.

Meanwhile, schools are also contending with other issues highlighted by the pandemic, such as the ongoing teacher shortage, uneven progress in digital transformation and improved occupational health and safety management.

Other calls from teachers

The media conference also highlighted the ongoing problem of a teacher shortage. More people would be attracted to the profession if teachers were more valued, and had fairer pay and hours, the associations stated.

Teachers also asked for the resumption of field trips and overnight camps, which is important for their development and for certain goals in the curriculum. This is another reason for mass testing. The federal government and the public transportation providers are asked to offer affordable transportation options for school classes.

They also highlighted how young people had found it harder to make their career choices during the pandemic. Most school leavers in Switzerland opt for an apprenticeship, with taster days and career fairs being an integral part of deciding which one. But many of these were cancelled or moved online during the pandemic. Additionally, some companies started recruiting promising apprentices at ever earlier dates, which increases pressure on pupils and their families.

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