Fewer restrictions at universities: should universities do more?

Fewer restrictions at universities: should universities do more?

Another lockdown accelerates our December depression, but luckily education at the UvA is allowed to continue with far less restrictive measures than during previous lockdowns. Should students be happy about this, or did the government give the UvA a responsibility too hard to handle?

Yes, the latest press conference has left everyone in a worse mood. And yes, depression among students as a result of the pandemic is not easily resolved. But at last, we students are no longer the scapegoat, no longer the most affected group. That is, if you look at the new measures and how few directly target universities. Of course, going to a bar, playing sports or visiting a gym are all forbidden after 5 ‘o clock and this directly affects students around the country, but for the first time since the start of the pandemic, higher education has been left relatively untouched by the measurements. While this initially seems like something to be cherished, there is also a downside. With code black on the ICU’s coming nearer and nearer, and the government struggling to maintain the support for their measures, should it maybe be up to the students to take some more responsibility?

Let’s consider the effect of the measures that are in force. The impact of these seemingly light measures shouldn’t be underestimated. The maximum of 75 people per lecture drastically reduces the amount of physical interaction students experience, which is clearly the aim of the measure, but doesn’t this disproportionately hit students that follow one of the bigger studies? Those are programmes where for years, the volume of students has led to less and less personal interaction and to more and more anonymity amongst students. It is the large lectures that again become entirely digitalized, condemning the students to their tiny bedrooms once more.

December second, the UvA, and more specifically the board, sent out an email acknowledging the struggle of students, but also listing their efforts to limit the effect of the pandemic for their students. They provide adequate ventilation, and the combination of a high amount of vaccinated students and employees and the government-issued mask mandate, has led to limited infections at the UvA, they state. They also offer initiatives for students who struggle with the negative mental side effects that this pandemic causes, asking everyone to ‘look out for each other’, while simultaneously asking the students to stick to the measures just a little longer. Since the start of the academic year, they have also offered students free self-tests in the mail, students are encouraged to take these tests twice a week. Despite the email painting an optimistic picture, isn’t there more the UvA, but also the students, should be doing?

In the email, the UvA kindly asks to wear a mask. While the percentage of people in the hallways wearing a mask is high, it seems weird that the masks disappear immediately once someone sits down. Haven’t we all sat next to, or in front of someone who was coughing, sneezing or sniffling constantly, leaving you to wonder whether it wouldn’t be better if students wore a facemask during class? Of course, the UvA discourages students to show up when showing symptoms, but they often tend to quickly disregard their runny nose or constant sneezing as a cold or ‘diminished resistance’. Another factor to be taken into account may be the fear of missing out on a mandatory lecture or tutorial, especially at programmes where attendance plays a big role. At the VU, this has already led to some precarious situations, with students showing up to class despite a positive test. It should be up to the UvA to not only ensure as much physical interaction as possible but at the same time offer students the possibility to take responsibility and stay home when needed, by always providing a digital alternative. This is already happening at some courses and programmes, but not yet everywhere.  While this may seem like a big task, the past years have forced the UvA and its teachers to adjust to some extreme situations with some extreme and creative solutions. Combining the old normal and the new normal should be possible. While it is ultimately a responsibility of the students, and the UvA has already taken various steps, they should and could do more to accommodate the students in taking this responsibility. If they don’t, it might not take long before everything moves online again.