The announcement that COVID certificates will be compulsory has been welcomed by both students’ and lecturers’ associations at ETH Zurich as the best way back to in-person teaching. Implementation is a challenge, as Rector Sarah Springman explains.
Professor Springman, last Friday’s article announcing the introduction of mandatory COVID certificates created some shockwaves. Although many support the move, others criticise the university for effectively making vaccination compulsory for students. How would you respond to that?
Sarah Springman: A certificate requirement is not the same as an obligation to be vaccinated. Anyone who hasn’t already had Covid not only has the option to get the jab, but can also obtain a certificate by completing a negative test. Even so, we appreciate the latter option is not ideal, given that a certificate based on a negative antigen test is only valid for two days.
Couldn’t we have avoided certificates altogether, so that all students had equal access to teaching?
Springman: Before the ETH Executive Board decided to make COVID certificates compulsory, many lecturers had expressed concerns about going back to classroom teaching. Furthermore, if wearing a face mask were the only requirement, lecture halls could only have been half full under current rules. This would have meant less access to face-to-face tuition for all students, who would only have attended classes in person every second week. Having had to tolerate online teaching for a long period across three semesters, everyone is keen to start the Autumn Semester with as much classroom teaching as possible. Unfortunately online teaching has meant that many students have struggled to focus on their studies. We are also aware that the mental health of many students has suffered badly over the past 18 months. The decision to introduce certificates is supported by the entire university, especially the Students’ Association (VSETH), the Association of Scientific Staff at ETH (AVETH), the Lecturers’ Conference (KdL), the University Assembly (UA) and the Directors of Studies.
Even so, many criticise ETH for discriminating against people who do not want to be vaccinated. What do you say to them?
Springman: It’s not a question of discrimination. We are an inclusive institution and stand by our values. But for the university as a whole, a certificate is a solution that allows far more in-person teaching than limiting requirements just to face masks. Anyone who does not want to get vaccinated or have a test will still be able to participate in almost all teaching events online. COVID certificates in combination with a face mask requirement will allow everyone else to meet up again regularly with colleagues on campus and take part in study groups. We want to ensure people who have been vaccinated are not disadvantaged by the individual decisions of unvaccinated people.
How do you mean?
If you have the jab, you’re not just protecting yourself, but you’re helping to prevent our hospitals from being overwhelmed with COVID patients. Most importantly, vaccination is the best measure for containing the pandemic. Getting vaccinated is a gesture of solidarity towards a society that has faced unprecedented challenges over the past 18 months. That’s why the Executive Board recommended very early on that all ETH members should get vaccinated.
What would be your specific advice to students worried about the jab?
Springman: First I would advise them to look more closely into the issue of vaccination and weigh up the various arguments. It would also definitely make sense to seek expert advice from a professional, such as a GP. After considering all the arguments, anyone who is still unwilling to get vaccinated can go and get tested. This applies particularly to forms of learning where students need to be physically present, such as experiments conducted in laboratories, but also performance assessments.
But there are also students who cannot be given the jab due to medical reasons...
Springman: These students have access to the same learning opportunities. We never ask anyone if they cannot or will not be vaccinated. Even after 1 October, the government will continue to offer free Covid tests for anyone who can provide a suitable medical certificate.
That brings us to the next question: will ETH cover test costs?
Springman: The government will continue to pay test costs until the end of September. There is currently some political lobbying for free testing to be extended. At the same time, ETH itself is looking into socially acceptable solutions, but no decisions have been taken yet. One thing is certain, however: a test centre will be available on the Zentrum and Hönggerberg campuses from the start of the semester till the end of the month.
Coming back to the certificate requirement: ETH members who get vaccinated in Switzerland are automatically issued a certificate. What about those vaccinated abroad?
We recognise all domestic and foreign certificates other proof of vaccination, as long as the vaccine complies with the special rules defined by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH) offering exemption from health-related measures at the border. This includes Sinopharm and Sinovac as well.
How will the certificate requirement be enforced?
We will perform random checks - in moderation and without disrupting teaching. Both students and employees participating in an in-person event must be in possession of the certificate or proof of vaccination, and also be able to confirm their identity by means of an ID document. This can also be the ETH card.
Will there be sanctions for anyone attending a lecture without a valid certificate?
Although we certainly reserve the right to impose sanctions, we don’t expect it to be necessary as we know our students are very sensible and responsible. In general terms we have to be careful that the lively discussion about the certificate requirement does not let us take our eye off the ball. With this rule, most students can get through the Autumn Semester with plenty of in-person teaching. All this has been made possible by the incredible efforts of our ETH staff, to whom I am extremely grateful. Once again we have shown - and will continue to show - that we can overcome challenges by pulling together.