How Did We Get Here?
TASIS Headmaster Christopher Nikoloff first communicated with the TASIS community about Covid-19 in late January. He wrote 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. 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 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. These included 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.
Making the Decision to Close the School
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. However, this plan had to be abandoned in March due to Italy effectively closing Lombardy.
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. All TASIS boarding students were able to safely return to their families before the outbreak worsened worldwide and many governments began enacting travel restrictions.
A New Learning Model
Though certainly not an easy adjustment for anyone, both students and teachers rose to the challenge of a new learning model. Our parents made it clear that they appreciated the effort. Two weeks in, it was evident that the resilient TASIS community was doing its best in a difficult situation.
The School had optimistically hoped to return to classes on April 20—following the Spring Holiday. However, by March 25 the situation in Ticino and around the world had escalated considerably. It therefore 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. Finally, 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.
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.
Feedback from the Community
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 fielded concerns about the safety of returning to campus. Also, we attempted to tackle the logistics of travel back to Switzerland for families who are out of 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.
Two Week Return
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.
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. Also, 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. Students are dismissed for lunch between 11:40–12:10 before finishing up the day with their specialty classes 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.”
The Discovery Projects
The Discovery Projects 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).
Ms Irene Avaldi-Bianchini’s students read Leonardo da Vinci: la penna che disegna il futuro, a biography about da Vinci that they found particularly engaging. It is, of course, 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.
The Return to School
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:
“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!”
“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 states. “It has been wonderful to see 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. These include 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. For example,the School is busily planning for the 2020–2021 Academic Year. We intend 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. The review will cover safety and quality, closely monitor local and federal measures. It will 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 on June 5, all safety plans are subject to ongoing developments as conditions change. However, 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 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.”
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