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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Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

Bavaria's state premier Markus Söder (CSU) has announced plans for a "prompt" end to mandatory masks on buses and trains.

Bavaria signals end to compulsory masks on public transport

If infection levels and hospitalisations remain low, the end of the mask-wearing rule could come as soon as December or January.

“We are convinced that the mask requirement in public transport could also be phased out either in mid-December or early next year, if the numbers remain reasonably stable and there are no new mutations,” Söder explained on Monday, following a meeting with the CSU executive committee. 

A decision on when to end the measure would be made “promptly”, he added.

The CSU politician had said last week that the sinking infection rates meant that compulsory masks were no longer appropriate and that the mandate could be changed to a recommendation. 

No set date for change

The latest version of Bavaria’s Infection Protection Act – which lays out an obligation to wear masks on public transport as one of the few remaining Covid rules – is currently due to expire on December 9th.

State ministers could decide whether to let obligatory masks on buses and trains lapse on this date as early as next week, or they could decide to initially extend the legislation and set an alternative date for ending the rule.

Regardless of their decision, FFP2 masks will continue to be mandatory on long-distance public transport until at least April next year, when the nationwide Infection Protection Act is due to expire.

READ ALSO: KEY POINTS: Germany’s new Covid-19 rules from October

Speaking to Süddeutsche Zeitung on Monday after the meeting of the Council of Ministers, Florian Herrmann (CSU), head of the State Chancellery, confirmed that Covid-19 had been discussed in passing.

However, no decisions or discussions were made on how to proceed after the expiry of the regulation, he said.

According to Herrmann, the fact that Covid was no longer the “dominant topic” in the cabinet under “enormous tension” shows “that we are returning to normality” in a gradual transition from pandemic to endemic. 

As of Wednesday, the 7-day incidence of Covid infections per 100,000 people stood at 108 in Bavaria, down from 111 the previous day. However, experts have cast doubt on how meaningful the incidence is in light of the fact that fewer people are taking tests.

Nevertheless, the 133 hospital beds occupied by Covid patients in the Free State falls well below the 600 threshold for a ‘red alert’. With Omicron causing less severe courses of illness than previous variants, politicians have increasingly focussed on hospitalisation statistics to gauge the severity of the situation.

‘A risk-benefit trade-off’

Bavaria is the second federal state to announce plans to relax its mask-wearing rules in recent weeks.

On November 14th, the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein announced that it would be ending obligatory FFP2 masks on public transport and urged other states to do the same. From January 2023, masks on public transport will only be recommended rather than mandated for passengers on local buses and trains. 

However, the Federal Ministry of Health has urged states not to loosen their rules too quickly.

Given that infection rates are likely to spike again in winter, “there’s no basis for loosening restrictions”, said Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD).

Physicians are also split on whether an end to masks on public transport is appropriate.

READ ALSO: Will Germany get rid of masks on public transport?

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach

Health Minister Karl Lauterbach (SPD) speaks at the German Hospital Day in Düsseldorf on November 14th. Lauterbach is against the lifting of the mask-wearing rule. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Roberto Pfeil

Christoph Spinner, a virologist at the University Hospital in Munich, told Süddeutsche Zeitung he believed it was time to put the decision on mask-wearing back into the hands of individuals.

“Why not? The incidences are low, the danger of Covid-19 has dropped significantly and mortality has also decreased,” he said. 

But the Bavarian General Practitioners’ Association spoke out against the move, arguing that – unlike a trip to a restaurant or cinema – people often have no choice but to travel on public transport.

“If the obligation to wear a mask in public transport is maintained, this will help to protect against a Covid infection on the way to work by bus or train – especially in view of the discontinuation of the obligation to isolate in the event of a Covid infection,” they explained.

Bavaria is one of four states to have recently ended mandatory isolation for people who test positive for Covid. Baden-Württemberg and Schleswig-Holstein both scrapped their isolation mandate last week, while Hesse removed its obligation on Tuesday. 

READ ALSO: Four German states call for end to mandatory Covid isolation