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ANALYSIS: Why Switzerland didn’t follow Germany’s lead and close schools

Despite similar epidemiological conditions, Switzerland has declined to close schools unlike neighbouring Germany. Swiss news outlet Watson asks why Switzerland is flying blind on school closures.

ANALYSIS: Why Switzerland didn't follow Germany's lead and close schools
Photo by Julia M Cameron from Pexels

The following column was written by Sarah Serafini and Dennis Frasch and appeared in Swiss news outlet Watson on Thursday, January 21st. It has been translated from German and republished by The Local Switzerland with permission.

Why Germany closed the schools
 
Lockdown measures have been in force in Germany since November. In mid-December, the restrictions were tightened with Schools and daycare centres largely closed, only offering emergency care.
 
On Tuesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel and state premiers decided that the measures would be extended until at least February 14th
 
An exception will be made for graduating classes.
 
Parents will be given additional opportunities to take paid leave to care for children.
 
Merkel said Tuesday that the decision over schools had been “long wrestled over”. She said there were “serious indications” that the new virus mutations could also spread more among children and young people.
 
The fact is that, as in Switzerland, the role of children has been disputed in Germany since the beginning of the pandemic.
 
The assessments range from “virus slingers” to being “uninvolved in the infection process”.
 
 
The studies to date contradict each other in part.
 
There is scientific evidence on how often schoolchildren contract coronavirus, but not on how often the infections go unnoticed because they have an asymptomatic course.
 
According to a study by Berlin virologist Christian Drosten, there is no evidence that children with Sars-CoV-2 are not as contagious as adults. The fear is that children, even if they have few symptoms, can still pass on the disease.
 
This is probably the most crucial argument why the federal government decided to close the schools. “The question is, do we play it safe or not?”
 
This is how Merkel is said to have formulated the alternatives to closing schools during a meeting.
 
Where Switzerland stands
 
While Merkel brought school closures into play early on as a possible measure, this was always rejected as a last resort in Switzerland after the first lockdown in the spring.
 
Since the special situation has been in effect again in Switzerland, responsibility for school openings or closings rests with the cantons.
 
As a rule, face-to-face classes were held again at all schools after the summer vacation. In some cases, individual universities held online lectures.
 
At the beginning of November, the Federal Council banned face-to-face teaching at universities and secondary schools for an indefinite period.
 
 
Compulsory masks were introduced in schools from secondary level 2 onwards. Individual cantons go further and require mask-wearing in class even for upper grades of compulsory education.
 
Before the Christmas vacations, there was a heated debate about extended vacations over the festive season and after New Year.
 
The Federal Council left the decision to the cantons. Accordingly, some schools were closed a week before Christmas, and high schools were given distance learning in January for the time being.
 
From the third week of January, when the first infections of schoolgirls with the mutated virus variant B.1.1.7 became known, the Swiss school system degenerated into a patchwork quilt.
 
The winter sports resort of Wengen closed its schools, in the canton of Ticino 500 pupils and 70 teachers had to be quarantined, in Frauenfeld an entire class of 100 schoolgirls, and quarantine orders were also issued in the cantons of Zug and Zurich.
 
In Kilchberg in Canton Zurich, an entire school was closed after a student contracted the mutated virus.
 
In the canton of Basel Country, the mask obligation now applies to pupils from the 5th primary class, in Volketswil in the Zurich Oberland, the children of a school house are subjected to a rapid test.
 
On Wednesday, the Federal Council wrote in a statement that it continues to advise against nationwide school closures. It is now examining possible scenarios for secondary levels 1 and 2 – if the situation worsens.
 
 
 
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (L/REAR) and his wife Elke Buedenbender (C/REAR). Photo: MICHELE LIMINA / AFP
 
Teachers and their risk of infection
With viral mutation spreading in classrooms, teachers' fear of infection is rising.
 
They are calling for vaccination priority or free FFP2 masks. How exposed teachers are to infection is not well understood. The same applies to whether the mutation is more dangerous for children than the conventional variant.
 
Based on cantonal data, a journalist from SRF calculated that teachers in Basel-Landschaft have twice the risk of contracting Sars-CoV-2.
 
Of 291,919 people in the canton, 3.6 percent would have contracted the coronavirus. Of the 3046 teachers at the primary level, 6.3 percent tested positive.
 
The “Ciao Corona” study of the University of Zurich, in which 2500 schoolchildren and teachers were tested for antibodies in October and November, came to a different conclusion.
 
The study showed that the children and teachers were infected with practically the same frequency as the average population. No cluster occurred at any school, the study leaders said.
 
 
A large-scale Israeli study published at the end of October by the Israeli Ministry of Health provides information on the infection rate among children.
 
It examined some 680,000 PCR tests in children and 2.6 million adults. The positivity rate was eight percent among children, two percent higher than among adults.
 
The difference was even more striking for antibody tests. 7.1 percent of children tested had antibodies, compared to between 1.7 and 4.8 percent of adults.
 
Although these figures clearly show that children are by no means immune to infection, this study does not provide any answers to the risk of transmission.
 
 
The question of mobility
 
At the beginning of January, ETH Zurich published a study that compared the mobility data of the Swiss resident population in spring 2020 with that of spring 2019.
 
Using anonymised cell phone data, the researchers were able to demonstrate exactly how individual measures have affected the mobility of the population.
 
The researchers concluded that school closures were among the most effective measures in reducing mobility. A reduction of almost 22 percent compared to the previous year was found.
 
Only person restrictions of five people (24.9 percent) and closures of restaurants, bars and stores (22.3 percent) were more effective.
 
School closures cause not only students and teachers to stay home, but also parents. And a general reduction in mobility has the effect of making it harder for the virus to spread.
 
The consequences of school closures
 
Although evidence of the positive epidemiological effects of school closures is accumulating, there is reluctance in Switzerland to close educational institutions again.
 
Even the task force is currently still against it.
 
Why? On the one hand, because it is still not clear exactly what role children actually play in this pandemic, and on the other hand, because the effects on children can be severe. 
 
For example, Switzerland's top teacher, Dagmar Rösler, told SRF, “We found that about a third of the students in distance learning learned little to nothing in the spring.”
 
 
There are likely socioeconomic reasons behind this. Children from lower social classes in particular often lack the right infrastructure to be able to learn from home.
 
This may be because there is not enough space or the laptop is not good enough.
 
Studies indicate that such out-of-school factors are one of the main reasons for inequalities in educational outcomes.
 
Other studies indicate that school closures can affect personal development because children lack social interaction with peers.
 
Likewise, psychological well-being can be disrupted.
 
“School closures light” as a middle ground
 
All these dimensions make it extremely difficult for politicians to enforce school closures. And yet, with the emergence of new viral mutations from the UK and South Africa, the move seems increasingly inevitable.
 
However, there are opportunities for graduation that could protect poorer-off children in particular from negative consequences.
 
In Germany, for example, children are entitled to emergency care if their parents are deemed indispensable by their employers or if it is unavoidable for the child's well-being.
 
There are also approaches to an emergency model in Switzerland. For example, Stefan Wolter, an education economist and member of the Science Taskforce, suggested that schools should remain open even during the transition to distance learning, and that individual students should be offered a job and receive support from teachers.
 
 
“The apprentice carpenter has to practice on the machine, a weak student needs additional support, and not everywhere does the home situation allow for learning equally well,” Wolter told Watson.
 
There is also the possibility of closing only middle and vocational schools as a first step, since children in adolescence suffer far less from closures than those in the primary grades and before.
 
At present, there are increasing signs that the Federal Council is considering such partial closures.
 
It has requested reports from the task force and the Conference of Cantonal Ministers of Education on possible further measures.

The following column was written by Sarah Serafini and Dennis Frasch and appeared in Swiss news outlet Watson on Thursday, January 21st. It has been translated from German and republished by The Local Switzerland with permission.

 

 

Member comments

  1. It seems ludicrous that Switzerland lags so far behind in vaccinations. Perhaps waiting for Astroziniker to be approved to save money. Meanwhile the Swiss economy rots and we all become less willing to believe that the lock down is of net benefit.

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Why Germany can’t break out of its Covid rules rut

Despite other countries getting rid of strict Covid regulations like mandatory masks on public transport, Germany remains devoted. Brian Melican asks why the country can't move on from absurd rules.

OPINION: Why Germany can't break out of its Covid rules rut

If you’ve always dreamt of being able to travel in time, there’s now a surprisingly easy way to do it: just take the ICE from Brussels to Cologne. When you get on at Midi station, things are just like they were in Germany in July 2019: friendly guards greet passengers at the doors and, soon after departure, someone from the BordBistro comes through to first class with a tray of coffee; the weather is fine, the train is punctual, and everyone is beaming ear to ear. You can see they are, of course, because they’re not wearing masks.

Then, in one of the tunnels between Liège and Aachen, we speed into July 2022 Germany: “Meine Damen und Herren…” The jarring announcement tells passengers in four languages – and in no uncertain terms – that they have to wear a medical face-mask on public transport in Germany; they may remove it to eat and drink, but must not overextend the break, and must make sure that it always covers both their mouth and their nose; any deviation from this rule will result in them being removed from the train. Suddenly, the guards and waiters re-appear – and this time, they’re not smiling…

Okay, so this may not be genuine time travel, but it’s certainly a good piece of absurdist theatre and, what is more, a graphic example of just how dysfunctional the German approach to dealing with Covid has become. It’s not that Germany is the only country with an irrational fear of people catching corona on trains and buses (but not, say, in pubs, gyms, or shops): in the UK, France, and Belgium, public transport was one of the last non-clinical settings in which masks were still required; in Sweden, trains were the only one in which they were officially recommended. Yet, everywhere else, common sense eventually prevailed.

In Germany, meanwhile, the world’s largest beer festival and proverbial germ-den, the Oktoberfest, will be returning on 17th September, from when each of the 16 largest tents will be welcoming up to 10,000 guests belting out Schlager (and virus particles) from 11am to 11pm daily for two weeks straight. It will, however, still be illegal to take the underground to the festival site without wearing a mask.

READ ALSO: The worst of both worlds: Germany’s coronavirus policy pleases no one

In view of the manifest absurdity of the current situation – and the fact that we are now one of the few remaining European countries with any form of legally-required non-pharmaceutical interventions left in place – it’s worth asking what has gone wrong in Germany, a country which, in the first phase of the pandemic, took a more liberal, measured approach than many of its neighbours and which, since 1949, has tended to uphold constitutional freedoms to a laudably high degree.

People get on and off an S-Bahn train in Frankfurt.

People get on and off an S-Bahn train in Frankfurt, with many people wearing masks. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

READ ALSO: Germany’s current Covid mask rules

Politics in favour of ‘hardcore’ restrictions 

So why do we still have patently pointless busy-body laws? The first answer to that is: politics. In the coalition, two of the parties – the SPD and the Greens – are wedded to hardcore restrictions, trying to delay their removal in March and inserting back-doors for the states to keep them in place; it was only thanks to the FDP that there was any loosening at all, and to get rid of the bulk of restrictions elsewhere, they opted to sacrifice mask-free public transport use. (Their core voters are car-drivers). As with all bad compromises, however, no-one is satisfied – and everyone is gearing up for negotiations on what replaces the current fudged legal framework for remaining restrictions when it expires on 23rd September. 

Beyond the inevitable spat between a bullish FDP and panic-stricken SPD and Greens, the political problem in Germany is broader. The legislative instrument up for renewal is termed Infektionsschutzgesetz – literally: ‘infection protection law’ – while the state-level restrictions derived from it are called SARS-CoV-2-Eindämmungsverordnungen, which means ‘statutory orders to halt the spread of SARS-CoV-2′. As such, the political debate in Germany is still being held on the premise that we are able to control the spread of coronavirus and that there are state interventions which can prevent it from infecting the entire population.

READ ALSO: German politicians clash over Covid rules for autumn 

In most other European countries, the Omicron wave led to the realisation that it was no longer possible to stop Covid spreading without opting for Chinese-level lockdowns – and to a slightly risky, yet thus far broadly successful strategic switch towards, on the basis of broad vaccination, using the milder variant to build up herd immunity at a lower cost in terms of sickness. While it is easy to understand just how difficult a plunge this is to take – applied too early (i.e. before inoculation), the herd immunity strategy was the reckless hallmark of Johnsonian/Trumpian policy – the facts of the matter are plain to see. Accordingly, from ex-WHO SARS research coordinator Klaus Stöhr to Andreas Gassen at the GP association, there is no shortage of epidemiologists and medical professionals in Germany arguing that now is the time.

People walk past a test centre in Frankfurt.

People walk past a test centre in Frankfurt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Arne Dedert

German angst over Covid remains

It isn’t the time, though, because – and this is the issue – Germans aren’t ready. That’s the other reason we still have these pointless busy-body laws: because the populace is willing to abide by them. Part of the reason the UK got rid of re-imposed coronavirus restrictions for good in February was because compliance was so low as to make a mockery of them: in a country where ONS statistics estimate that 90 percent of the population has already had Covid and where mortality has plummeted, people no longer see the point in protecting themselves; ditto across the Channel, where, after complying to a surprisingly high degree with the excessive regulations in 2020, the French rediscovered their Gallic shrug this spring once they’d all had the disease.

We Germans, of course, are different. There has been no shortage of ink spilled on our national willingness to comply with even obviously pointless regulations and on our communal love of policing each other’s conduct (least of all by me). The problem with corona is that our notorious obsession with compliance is multiplied by another of our national traits: hypochondria. German sensitivity to illness has its good sides – even before Covid, we didn’t go into the office or to parties with streaming colds – but can, like all worthy characteristics, become pathological.

As political parties well know, a majority of Germans is still terrified of corona and has now come to view others’ mouths and noses primarily as a source of danger. After sandals at swimming pools, towels in saunas, and removing shoes at apartment doors, masks are now the next behavioural modification Germans are willing to make – and enforce – in their quest for marginally improved hygiene.

The stress, of course, is on ‘marginal’. As last week’s report on government restrictions underlined, masks can be a useful tool in stopping the spread of respiratory illness – provided, of course, they are worn properly and continuously. Germans beloved FFP2 masks do not seem to offer much more protection than other forms of face coverings. So forcing restaurant diners to put on a specific type of mask from the door to their table, where they then remove it to eat, drink, and be merry, is an exercise in pointlessness. Ditto on trains, where people also eat and drink (not least in the BordBistro…).

Of course, we didn’t really need an expert commission to tell us this: it is borne out by the fact that Germany’s highest ever rates of infection were back in March, when – along with a whole other range of bewildering regulations (anyone remember “2G+”?) – mask-wearing was in force and, moreover, while even famously light-touch Sweden (with whom our per-capita death rate is comparable) had absolutely no restrictions and an exceptionally low case-load.

A sign at the Cologne carnival in February 2022 saying entry is '2G-plus' - only for vaccinated/recovered people who can show a negative test, or boosted people.

A sign at the Cologne carnival in February 2022 saying entry is ‘2G-plus’ – only for vaccinated/recovered people who can show a negative test, or boosted people. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Thomas Banneyer

This and other glaringly obvious incongruities, however, won’t stop German Health Minister Karl Lauterbach and his like from trotting out their tired mantra that a high seven-day incidence means that restrictions are needed (regardless of hospitalisation or the overall burden of illness) and that restrictions must mean masks. It won’t stop Germans from agreeing with him, either: our unappealing assumption that we know best means that, rather than asking why our death rate is so high after two years of uninterrupted Covid restrictions of one form or another, we simply assume that neighbouring countries must somehow be wrong.

READ ALSO: School closures in Germany ‘cannot be ruled out’, says minister 

So expect plenty more exercises in cross-border train-travel pointlessness – along with the widespread re-imposition of indoor mask-wearing, hand-disinfection, and testing requirements this autumn. When it comes to coronavirus, it’s Groundhog Day in Germany – and, really, our time loop is stuck somewhere back in 2020/21. The train to 2022 leaves from Cologne every two hours at 42 minutes past.

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