By Neva Newcombe
Some students at the Institute returned to the classroom on Monday, following an announcement from the Conseil Fédéral on April 14 that institutions of higher learning could begin to offer in-person instruction again. The following day, Director Marie-Laure Salles confirmed that classes at IHEID would return to a hybrid format on Monday, April 26.
Cafeteria service also reopened Monday.
A Decision Motivated by Mental Health Concerns
In her email to the community, Director Salles explained that the administration’s decision to reopen in spite of “worrying” epidemiological conditions was a response to the “social and psychological risks” associated with the ongoing lockdown. The psychological effects of isolation— a once meaningful word that now feels clinical— should not be understated. United Nations Children’s Fund director Henrietta Fore projected last fall that 24 million students would drop out of school due to the lack of in-person learning.
COVID-19 related lockdowns have also had a “major” impact on mental health; one study showed suicidal thoughts increasing between the start of the pandemic and now among all test groups from 8% to 10% during the lockdown. Incidence was highest among young adults (18-29), increasing from 12.5% to 14%. During the first lockdown, mental health conditions deteriorated most among young people, women, those from “socially-disadvantaged backgrounds,” and those with pre-existing mental health issues.
According to a survey conducted by the Graduate Institute Student Association (GISA), 63% of IHEID students favor hybrid teaching, while 37% are against it. A representative from the Board said that the survey “shows that the decision to have some openings at the Institute is broadly in line with what at least concerned students have expressed.”
Though the decision to resume in-person instruction at the Institute will undoubtedly improve some students’ mental health, the situation is complicated. To start, Head of Student Services Diego Guttierez estimates that 174 students (or 30.5% of respondents to the recent survey) are not present in Geneva at this time and will follow the remainder of the semester online, a figure which is close to the portion of respondents in the GISA survey that opposed hybrid teaching.
These students, as the Graduate Press has attempted to show, are in some cases forced to be remote due to personal disadvantages such as financial pressure or health risks. The decision to return to hybrid learning presents an inherent disadvantage to those students, who will not be able to return to the classroom this week or reap any of the benefits afforded by in-person instruction. In fact, one remote student told the Press that hybrid learning was “worse” than online instruction, because at least online instruction offers a level playing field for remote students.
Mr. Gutierrez also told the Graduate Press that 43.75% of classes would remain entirely online, while 56.25% would offer some in-person teaching. That statistic could indicate several things, one of which is professors’ own hesitancy (or inability) to return to the classroom.
A Fragile Health Situation
Switzerland’s COVID-19 numbers have decreased dramatically since the second wave in Autumn, and the country is faring far better than its neighbors.
However, according to the weekly Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) reports, daily case count in Switzerland is now more than double what it was when the Institute originally made the decision to go online in March of last year.
Daily death count in the country is approximately the same as it was when that decision was made, though by late March and early April of 2020 the virus’s mortality rate had skyrocketed due to poorly developed therapies and lack of preparation in Swiss hospitals. The healthcare system is now, of course, more prepared.
That said, over the past week Switzerland’s COVID-19 mortality rate increased by 32.3%, more than any other European country.
IHEID reopens its doors this week while the situation around the world remains checkered. Places like the United Kingdom and Mexico have seen improvements in the past month, despite the world having its highest one-day tally of new infections ever last week due to the catastrophic situation in India, a place many students at the Institute call home. According to one student from Hyderabad, focusing on schoolwork and maintaining a poker face while the situation is so bad at home feels “impossible.”
Switzerland’s immediate neighbors are also doing poorly. Germany imposed new lockdowns this weekend as it weathers a third wave of COVID-19, which has been attributed to the new, more contagious U.K. strain of the coronavirus. In France, schools and nurseries also reopened Monday, despite the nation’s ICU occupancy reaching its highest level since last Spring. Though restrictions are easing in Italy, Italians too are seeing daily infection rates almost double what they were at last Spring’s peak.
It would be illogical for the Swiss government or the Graduate Institute administration to base their decisions on the epidemiological situation in other countries, and few experts have raised alarm about the recently eased restrictions in Switzerland. Additionally, the results of the GISA survey on in-person instruction show that the majority of students favor returning to the classroom. Nevertheless, some students still have misgivings about the decision, and the pandemic is far from over in Switzerland or any of the other places that students call home.