ZURICH — Like many parents in the United States, I am nervous about what will happen when schools reopen on Monday. The only difference is that here, in Switzerland, we already experienced what it was like to send our children back to school, in the spring.
“Is the coronavirus gone?” my 5-year-old son asked when we found out on April 29 that schools were reopening in May.
“Well, not exactly,” I said.
“Can you go first to see that there are no coronaviruses in my kindergarten?”
“Sure, but I’m pretty sure there are none in there right now,” I answered, pulling his soft pajama-clad body closer to mine.
Hearing his 5-year-old’s fears, I started to panic a bit. Emilio and I can both get bronchitis easily. The smallest cold virus hits us directly in the lungs. Although I am considered to be at high risk for Covid-19, Emilio is not because he is a child. The Swiss Society of Pediatrics’ stance is that children are not at high risk and are also not “primary vectors of transmission.” Never mind the troubling news of the rare condition, called pediatric multisystem inflammatory syndrome, that affects children exposed to the coronavirus.
In Switzerland, the federal government’s Covid-19 response wasn’t so much a political issue but one most people accepted as a public health one. The government is cautious when it comes to infringing upon civil liberties. For example, it recommended but never mandated that people stay at home during shutdown, and for the most part, the Swiss listened.
By the time Swiss schools reopened on May 11, the number of new daily infections had dropped to 46. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, Switzerland, with a population of 8.6 million, roughly the same as New York City, was among the countries with the highest number of infections per capita in the world after Italy.
Before my son’s school reopened, I called his kindergarten teacher, who assured me there would only be eight children in the classroom at a time and that two additional teachers would assist in maintaining hygiene and social distancing rules. The learning environment with fewer kids would be ideal for him, she told me. Emilio is sensitive to noise. She was right. When he returned to in-class instruction, Emilio began to make huge strides both academically and socially.
My 9-year old daughter, Liliana, is a motivated self-learner and loved having more control of her time when schools were closed. There were certainly struggles at home to complete required school assignments, but with time at her disposal she also discovered gardening, insects and volcanoes. She spent hours reading piles of books. She drew, painted and practiced a lot of violin. She didn’t necessarily feel like she needed to return to school, but she was happy to see her friends again. She even performed in the end-of-the-year talent show.
Teachers in both my children’s classes made a concerted effort to put students and their friends in the same groups. At first, each group attended school two full days while continuing with long-distance learning for the remainder of the week. By June, as infection numbers continued their steady decline in Switzerland, schools returned to normal scheduling and classes were adjusted back to pre-Covid-19 sizes.
Throughout this, my children’s school provided us with a comprehensive contact-tracing plan. Children exhibiting the slightest of coughs were sent home to get tested before being allowed back in the classroom.
Since schools ended on July 10, there has been a steady increase of infections in Switzerland, rising above 200 new cases per day. When schools reopen on Monday, our biggest concern is whether families who travel to high-risk areas during the summer will bring new infections back to their communities. There are financial penalties for people traveling to high-risk countries who do not factor in the mandatory 10-days self-quarantine upon returning to jobs and schools in Switzerland. Whether this is enough to curb new outbreaks is still unclear.
These days, my husband and I track daily infection numbers. We will likely send our children back to school and we trust that the government will close schools again, if necessary.
“Mommy, if a lot more coronaviruses come back, we won’t go back to school, right?” Emilio asked me recently.
“We are watching carefully to make sure it is safe,” I tell him. Nevertheless, it is difficult not to be fearful or overthink possible consequences. I can’t help but wonder, if a common cold sent my child to the intensive care unit, is he really safe from Covid-19?
Sharon Kim Soldati is a writer and violin teacher at the Musikschule Konservatorium Zürich. Originally from New York, she lives with her husband and two children in Switzerland.