After more than two months of relying exclusively upon distance learning, TASIS The American School in Switzerland was thrilled to welcome Elementary and Middle School students back to campus on May 25. In the article below, we review how the School got to this point, where it currently stands, and where it hopes to go.
How Did We Get Here?
TASIS Headmaster Christopher Nikoloff first communicated with the TASIS community about the coronavirus in late January, with a note in a Weekly Bulletin indicating that the School was already in discussions with its risk management partner Healix and keeping a close eye on developments. Weekly updates continued throughout February as classes proceeded in normal fashion and students and teachers prepared to attend their Spring Academic Travel trips in the final week of the month.
News of an outbreak in northern Italy broke late on the evening of Saturday, February 22, the night before many of these trips were set to depart, and the School scrambled to re-route all travel through Zurich. Ticino announced its first positive Covid-19 case soon after, and TASIS responded with an update on February 25 that summarized federal and local announcements before providing the School’s own response.
Classes continued at the start of March as students and teachers returned from their trips, with a number of important safety procedures instituted on campus, including daily temperature checks and a robust hygiene education campaign. The School sent clear messages to the community nearly every day during this critical phase to ensure families were aware of all possible outcomes.
An initial idea to house boarding students who couldn’t travel home during the Spring Holiday (April 4–20) at the Fleming family estate in Tuscany was soon expanded into a two-week trip to Verbier, but this plan had to be abandoned in light of the jarring news on March 7 that Italy was effectively closing Lombardy and 14 other provinces.
As was the case with the initial outbreak in Lombardy, this news broke on a Saturday evening. The TASIS Board of Directors met with members of the administration for several hours on the morning of Sunday, March 8, and came to the conclusion that the best past forward would be to close campus as quickly as possible and move to a distance learning model beginning on March 16. This decision was not made lightly and was considered somewhat of a bold move at the time, as federal and local authorities had yet to mandate school closures of any kind. But this decisive action paid immediate dividends, as all TASIS boarding students were able to safely return to their families before the outbreak worsened worldwide and many governments began enacting travel restrictions.
Though certainly not an easy adjustment for anyone, both students and teachers rose to the challenge of a new learning model, and parents made it clear that they appreciated the effort. Two weeks in, it was evident that the resilient TASIS community was doing its best to adapt to a difficult situation.
The School had optimistically hoped to return to classes on April 20—following the Spring Holiday—but by March 25 the situation in Ticino and around the world had escalated considerably, and it became clear that this would be impossible. TASIS decided to continue the distance learning model until at least May 18, the College Board announced that Advanced Placement exams would be moved online, and the International Baccalaureate canceled its 2020 exams. During this time, TASIS held extensive conversations with families and teachers to ensure that distance learning was working as well as it could.
On April 17, with the Covid-19 situation continuing to escalate around the world and international travel restrictions mounting, TASIS had little choice but to announce that all High School students and Middle School boarding students would continue with distance learning until the end of the year. The door was left open for Elementary School and Middle School day students to return sometime in late May.
On April 29, both the Swiss Federal Government and the Canton of Ticino announced that compulsory schooling (Pre-Kindergarten through 8th graders) would resume on May 11. With more complexities to grapple with than the typical local school, TASIS chose to proceed carefully. Mr. Nikoloff shared his thoughts with the community on May 3:
Throughout the last month, I have received extensive feedback from teachers, parents, and students on the topic of returning from distance learning to live instruction. We have heard that because distance learning is now well established, another transition back to live learning will be disruptive. We have also fielded concerns about the safety of returning to campus and the logistics of travel back to Switzerland for our families who are no longer in the area. While the above reflects the majority of opinions that we have received, some also expressed strong views about the importance of returning to school and returning to our more customary practices as soon as possible.
After extensive dialogue with parents, students, teachers, and the Board, TASIS ultimately decided to reopen its campus on May 25. Elementary and Middle School students would spend the final two weeks of the year working on Discovery Projects—engaging, content-related academic projects that fit within each grade’s curriculum—and families would have the option of either having their children return to live learning on campus or having them continue to do the work from home.
As Mr. Nikoloff explained on May 17, the primary goals of the two-week return to campus were to
- structure a safe return to school for everyone involved.
- practice new school safety routines prior to the start of the 2020–2021 academic year in August 2020.
- pursue end-of-year academic projects related to the curriculum.
- enhance the school community by providing opportunities for in-person engagement between students and with teachers.
- provide an opportunity to bring closure to the school year in a positive and healthy manner.
A detailed Campus Reopening Guidelines document—developed in cooperation with the safety consultant company ProCert AG—outlined the stringent social distancing guidelines and additional safety policies and procedures that would be in place upon the return to live learning on campus. The document covered expectations for all TASIS constituents—from students and employees to parents and suppliers—procedures for entering and exiting campus, morning drop-off and pick-up procedures, academic expectations, the structure of the academic day, and more.
Masks are required for all students, employees, and visitors when entering or exiting campus during peak times.
Where Are We Now?
On the afternoon of Friday, June 5, Mr. Nikoloff was very pleased to report that both the Elementary School and the Middle School have made a successful and safe return to campus. “We are very heartened to see students and teachers together on campus again,” he wrote in his latest community announcement. “And we thank everyone for their cooperation, diligence, and imagination in closing out the year with exciting project work and a strong community spirit.”
To be sure, the final two weeks of school have looked a bit different than normal. All students, employees, and visitors have their temperature taken each morning with thermal or optical cameras, class sizes are smaller, masks must be worn in certain situations, and a two-meter distance rule is enforced everywhere—from classroom desks to dismissal queues. Classes have only been held on campus in the morning, with students dismissed for lunch between 11:40–12:10 before finishing up the day with their specialty classes (Physical Education, Arts, and Music) from home.
“Both students and teachers have done an excellent job following all safety protocols,” said Lower School Head Tim Fitzgerald, who has closely monitored the situation along with other administrators. “They fully understand why we need to take these extra precautions.”
See more photos from the final two weeks of school
The Discovery Projects, which were designed to promote interdisciplinary thinking, creativity, and passion about engaging academic topics at each grade level, have progressed smoothly. Topics examined have included, among others, the customs, clothing, and literature of China (grade 2), fairy tales (grade 3), literary amusement parks (grade 4), choose-your-path stories (grade 5), art and literature produced during the pandemic (grade 6), the historical implications of the pandemic (grade 7), the inventions of the 21st century (grade 7), and the past, present, and future of cities (grade 8).
One in-depth example would be the excellent work done by Middle School students in Ms. Irene Avaldi-Bianchini’s Advanced Italian class. Her students read Leonardo da Vinci: la penna che disegna il futuro, a biography about da Vinci that they found particularly engaging, as it is da Vinci himself who narrates and comments upon his extraordinary life. As they read, students were guided in a Discovery Project that consisted of recreating da Vinci’s world by capturing the varied topics of his studies—from nature to art.
“My main intention through this was to make them understand that Leonardo was able to discover and create so much thanks to the connections he made through different fields that are intended as one harmony,” said Ms. Avaldi-Bianchini, who has worked at TASIS since 2003. “In this sense, nature, math, art, philosophy, history, music, anatomy, architecture, and technological innovations are pieced together in search of supreme knowledge and beauty.”
Advanced Italian Discovery Project
The return to school has been met with a warm reception by both students, who have been ecstatic to see their friends again, and parents, who are happy to see their children back in an interactive learning environment. Comments have included the following:
“I just wanted to let you know that my boys were very satisfied with this first morning of school.”
“I have found all my daughter’s teachers fantastic and always determined to find a way to get the best out of her. No one is excluded from my gratitude. You have an excellent 6th-grade Italian Section team. My congratulations on the incredible work they have done both in the classroom and online.”
|"My son told me with great satisfaction about the story project related to the Coronavirus. Evidently there is great interest on their part considering that it is a very current and fresh theme that, moreover, they will be able to tell about having experienced it firsthand. I find it helpful that they can reflect on what happened with their teachers as guides because, all in all, they have managed to live through it with great serenity and did not necessarily perceive the gravity.”|
|“The teachers have been fantastic. They always find a way to get the best out of my daughter.”|
|“I can only imagine how hard you all have worked to make these first 10 days of school work safely.”|
|“They have been brilliant! Both teachers and staff at TASIS deserve a huge applause for their hard work!”|
|“I am extremely excited for the upcoming project. I honestly believe the choice of subject is great, and everyone, no matter their interests or knowledge of a particular subject, will have a chance to shine. I am really looking forward to using some of the experience I gained over my last summer’s work to help my team improve our final result. As soon as I saw the topic of the project when I entered Google Classroom this morning, I started drafting up some ideas on how, according to my past experience, we can be as realistic and as productive with our work as possible.”|
|“We know our teachers did their absolute best with distance learning, but it has been so refreshing to get away from screens and learn in the classroom again.”|
|“I missed my friends so much, and I’m so happy to be back at school!”|
Mr. Fitzgerald has also been pleased with how smooth the return to school has gone and impressed with how enthusiastically students have pursued their Discovery Projects. “It has been wonderful to see both students and teachers so excited to explore areas of interest and passion,” he said. “Not a day goes by where I don’t see someone sharing their excitement for learning.”
Where Are We Going?
While TASIS will not be running its renowned Summer Programs in 2020 due to a variety of factors—including visa restrictions on international students; the inability, due to these same restrictions, to get the program directors and longtime employees to Switzerland; and large-scale ongoing construction projects on campus—the School is busily planning for the 2020–2021 Academic Year and intends to open in late August as originally planned, with both boarding and day students.
“The Covid-19 data coming out of Switzerland is extremely promising,” said Mr. Nikoloff, who added that his team will use this summer to review all aspects of the School for safety and quality, closely monitor local and federal measures, and work with consultants and local authorities to develop various safety plans. [Editor's note: Just after this article was published, a detailed study released by the non-profit Deep Knowledge Group identified Switzerland as the world's safest country for Covid-19.]
As noted in his message to the community on June 5, all safety plans are subject to ongoing developments as conditions change, but a sampling of the areas under review includes the following:
- Safe distancing in classrooms, dormitories, dining halls, and common areas
- Travel and transportation plans and protocols
- Testing protocols for boarding students
- Hybrid and distance learning models for continuity of instruction
- Protocols for sick students, teachers, or staff
Mr. Nikoloff, who has done a phenomenal job leading the School through an extremely challenging spring, noted that he continues to be both inspired and humbled by the work of TASIS teachers, staff, and students. “I am confident that this temporary trial will continue to bring out the best in all of us,” he said. “I remain endlessly grateful for the indomitable spirit of the entire TASIS community. We have faced extraordinary and unprecedented challenges as a community this year, and we are stronger for it.”