British Columbia

Switzerland and Denmark may offer tips for successful return to school in B.C.

B.C.'s Ministry of Education says it has looked at several countries, including Denmark and Switzerland, to see how they are managing schools.

Cases in both countries dropped after kids returned to class in the spring

Despite sharing a border with Northern Italy, the former epicentre of Europe's coronavirus outbreak, Switzerland sent children back to class on May 11. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As B.C. approaches a return to school in September, Switzerland and Denmark may offer clues on how to keep schools open amid a pandemic.

The Ministry of Education says the European countries are among several they've studied to see how other regions are managing schools.

Switzerland, despite sharing a border with Northern Italy — the former epicentre of Europe's coronavirus outbreak — sent children back to class on May 11. Schools remained open until the end of the school year, nearly two months later.

Classrooms were initially split into two groups, explained Liam Printer, a teacher based in Switzerland and host of the podcast The Motivated Classroom

Every day, one cohort attended class while the other students tuned in from home, and vice versa. After about two weeks, all children under the age of 15 or 16 began attending school every day.

Meanwhile, older students returned to class in smaller numbers on June 8, according to Switzerland's public broadcaster. However, some of those students opted to continue with distance education until the end of the school year.

Printer said the Swiss government did not require students up to the age of about 16 to physically distance, but adults and older teens were required to stay apart.

Though masks were not made mandatory, some Swiss cantons, or states, later introduced mask orders for older students.

Swiss cases declined after reopening

Shops, restaurants, museums and libraries all reopened the same day as schools, but physical distancing and a five-person limit on public gatherings remained.

After relaxing rules in May, Switzerland saw its number of new COVID-19 cases level off, though cases have crept up since early July when school ended. The country's number of deaths per million people now sits around 233, about 10 fewer than Canada.

Printer said the Swiss government also gave individual schools the authority to implement some of their own rules.

The school where he teaches decided to stagger start times for primary-aged children to avoid large groups of parents congregating at one time. And teachers and administrators tried to keep students of different age groups separate.

"But the reality is: they're children," Printer told Michelle Eliot, guest host of CBC's The Early Edition. "Even if you've got two or three hundred students out at lunchtime — and you're trying your best — they're still going to interact and be around each other."

More learning outdoors

While the B.C. government has looked at Switzerland's model, it says it is paying closer attention to how similar-sized jurisdictions like New Zealand and Denmark are managing schools.

Jennifer Santos Olsen, a Canadian-born mother living in Denmark, sent her eight-year-old daughter back to school in late April. 

"I was very nervous," the mother of two told Early Edition listeners on Thursday.

But she said her concerns were alleviated when she and other parents got a chance to speak to medical experts who explained why it's important for young children to quickly return to school. 

A study from UNICEF Canada found that the COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented impact on the lives of children and youth, citing disrupted routines and loss of education and other resources.

Besides sanitizing and distancing measures, Olsen said her daughter's class was split into three groups spread throughout the school. Masks are not mandatory, but teachers have taught more lessons outdoors, a practice the B.C. government will encourage when kids return to schools on Sept. 10.

After partially reopening in April, cases in Denmark dropped. Though, like in Switzerland, infections have risen in recent weeks. 

Last week, Olsen's 13-year-old daughter returned to class, much to the teenager's relief, despite the changes.

"It's a different reality now," Olsen said. 

Clarifications

  • Liam Printer teaches at the International School at Lausanne, a private school based in Le Mont-sur-Lausanne.
    Aug 18, 2020 2:21 PM PT

The Early Edition and Brandie Weikle

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