Lecturers concerned about returning to classrooms: ‘We’re taking huge risks’

UU is welcoming students to the campus once again. Photos: DUB

Gerhard Blab, Assistant professor of Physics, still wears his face mask when meeting other people. That mask will definitely stay on when he welcomes the freshmen for the programme's introduction, which takes place this week. “I’ll tell them that I would really appreciate it if they got vaccinated, or at least took a test before coming to class. I’ll also ask them to keep distance from each other.”

Blab isn't actually teaching this first term, and he feels sorry for the colleagues who are. In his view, they deserve to get more support from the university. He's concerned about the decision to take classes back to the university's buildings, with no further restrictions for the students. “Why not wait a few more weeks? I was hoping to see the universities take more leadership in this regard.”

Students' mental health was decisive factor
Blab isn’t the only teacher questioning the government's decision, announced on August 13, to allow higher education institutions to schedule classes and work assignments on campus again, without the 1.5-metre social distancing rule.

The decision was made after the Association of Dutch Universities (VSNU in the Dutch acronym) urged the government to do so, stressing the toll that isolating at home for a year and a half was taking on students' mental health. They also argued that an exclusively online model is detrimental to the quality of education.

Last spring, Dutch universities refused to work with two different scenarios for the upcoming academic year, as the minister of education had requested, for doing so would imply increasing teachers' workloads considerably. The universities stated that only one scenario was possible: reopening fully.

By taking their request, the Dutch government basically ignored the advice issued by the Outbreak Management Team (OMT), the team of virology experts assembled to counsel the cabinet throughout the pandemic. The OMT had urged the government to wait a little, at least until September 20, when two weeks will have passed since the day that everyone who wanted to be vaccinated in the Netherlands received their second jab. The municipal health centres (GGDs in the Dutch acronym) agreed with this advice.

Amsterdam lecturer resigns
Although the decision to restart higher education on location was supported by society in general, some reacted with surprise and irritation. How come universities are ignoring scientific advice? It is simply too early to reopen without any further limits, said philosopher Jeroen de Ridder from the Young Academy.

According to the trade unions, the universities didn't ask for their employees' opinions either. The Education Union (AOB) has conducted a survey among its members to assess how safe they feel about the government's decision. The results are expected this week.

For Amsterdam lecturer Matt Cornell, the situation was reason enough to leave the university. Writing (in Dutch) for university magazine Folia, he pointed out the dangers that teachers and students are being exposed to now that they will all be together in one room again.

Not a personal problem
UU Gender Studies teacher Ilse Lazaroms also took to the press to voice her opposition to the measure. The lecturer, who has respiratory and allergy issues, wrote in the Dutch newspaper Volkskrant that she’s had two shots of the vaccine, but she’s still cautious when meeting large groups of people. As a single parent, everything depends on her health, she wrote. “And then I’ll be standing in a jam-packed, poorly-ventilated classroom to teach for two straight hours.”

That won’t be happening anytime soon, though. Lazaroms told DUB that she and her colleagues have presented their educational director with a proposal suggesting that she’ll offer an online work group for the 170 students enroled in the course she’s supposed to coordinate in the first term, while her colleagues will be teaching in person. This approach seems to be beneficial to all. “I do think that there are students who, given the situation, would prefer online classes.”

Huge risk
Luckily, Lazaroms' director has empathised with her situation, but she’s still indignant. “This shouldn’t be seen as my personal problem. The way we’re going to teach now is simply irresponsible for everyone: for all teachers, all students, and their families. I was hoping – especially considering the advice issued by the National Institute for Public Health and Environment (RIVM) – that the university would make a different choice. Since a large share of the students isn’t vaccinated yet, this means we’re taking a huge risk.”

Lazaroms would have preferred to see the university judge how safe it is to teach per semester. “We don’t know what’s going to happen in practice. What if a lot of students or lecturers have to call in sick? Should we change the way the class will be given, yet again? It’s that kind of change that exhausts teachers, giving them even heavier workloads.”

She's noticed that reactions to the university's decision vary among her colleagues. Many share her concerns, but accept the situation. But she prefers to voice her dissatisfaction. “It has to do with my discipline as well. We often talk about ‘the politics of care’. Vulnerable people also have a right to health care, education, and work. I wonder whether anyone considers how rough it can be for (vulnerable) students and lecturers to step into a full lecture hall. Calling attention to this issue is politics, it’s about structures.”

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Mixed messages
Assistant professor of Pedagogy Ellen Reitz was glad she had already scheduled her own Master’s course to be held online in the first term. Conversations with her colleagues showed that they, too, would have liked to see the university wait a few more weeks before restarting in-person education in full swing.

She finds it "peculiar", to say the least, that teachers are told to work from home as much as possible and keep distance from their colleagues when meeting them in person, but at the same time they're expected to stand in front of a lecture hall filled with students. “It feels like we're getting mixed messages.”

Like Lazaroms, Reitz also fears that the university's decision will actually increase teachers' workloads instead of diminishing them. In her view, universities' exceptional position, when it comes to offering classes on location again, is something that brings about a lot of discussion. That wouldn't have been the case if universities kept following the regulations, such as the 1.5-metre rule. “Now, we’ve got to be flexible on all fronts.”

Are teachers allowed to refuse to teach classes in person, even if their own health or the health of their loved ones isn’t necessarily in immediate danger? What about students? Under what conditions are they allowed to stay home and to what extent are teachers obligated to provide an alternative to that class? Reitz, who’s also a member of the Social Sciences Faculty Council, notes that ideas vary among programmes. “For that reason, we’re going to ask our faculty board to establish consistent, unified guidelines.”

No mandatory vaccination
Nevertheless, the three teachers think that requiring students to get vaccinated, as a colleague in Twente proposed in a column (in Dutch) for Enschede University's magazine U-Today, is taking things too far. But they do sympathise with her reasoning. Reitz: “I know there are colleagues who completely agree with her. They say that studying is a choice, and it implies getting vaccinated. Although that would make everything a lot easier, I think we should just accept that it’s not feasible to expect all students to get vaccinated.”

Lazaroms: “In my view, it is a social duty to get vaccinated. I would like the university to promote that point of view, as students shouldn’t just think about themselves, they should consider others too. But we can’t and shouldn’t impose it on individual students.”

Blab, too, thinks that universities can’t force students to get vaccinated: “But what I don’t understand is why universities can’t ask students for one of the three: either recovered, tested negative, or fully vaccinated. Why are we going for a miminum of restrictions?”

Majority feels safe
The question remains how representative the three teachers we’ve spoken with are of the entire teaching community. The fact is that, after the first critical voices started to appear in national media, lecturers have been voicing their concerns in the university media as well.

On the other hand, a study from Maastricht University, conducted last spring with around eight thousand employees, showed that the vast majority of teachers feel like they can go back to work safely in the new academic year. A quarter of the respondents thought otherwise.

A spokesperson for the Local Meeting, an institution where Utrecht trade unions are represented, says they have not received any complaints from UU teachers.

UU empathises with hesitating teachers
Maarten Post, spokesperson for the Executive Board, says there’s no complete overview of how UU lecturers feel about education on location at this time. “We have the impression that the vast majority of teachers have no objections to in-person education in the present conditions.” The conditions Post refers to include wearing face masks in the hallways and restricting the size of the groups allowed to gather inside the same lecture hall to 75.

According to Post, the university empathises with the teachers who are hesitant to teach in person again. “We have to carefully monitor how things go.” Post says that lecturers with health issues or who take care of others are being taken into consideration. Those teachers can talk to their educational director to discuss alternatives. “But the principle is: we teach on location.”

Most students vaccinated
In the last UU update, the Executive Board attempts to alleviate the concerns lecturers and students may have about the return to campus. Critical teachers often mention the RIVM data showing that a third of young people in the Netherlands aren’t vaccinated yet, but students are said to have a higher vaccination rate than their peers. A large-scale survey among students in Wageningen shows that nearly 90 percent of respondents are already fully vaccinated, the Executive Board writes.

Moreover, UU experts like Patricia Bruining indicate that the risk is acceptable, now that many students are either immune or vaccinated.

Finding a sensible balance
Blab, Lazaroms and Reits emphasise that they understand that students and other lecturers are yearning for in-person education.

Blab says we both need to prevent Covid from spreading further and allow students to return to campus as soon as possible. Reading in the latest UU update that the university is taking teachers’ concerns seriously made him very happy. “The trick now is to find a sensible balance.”

Lazaroms: “Most of all, my colleagues and I are thinking about the students. There’s no contradiction here. Because we’re returning to the classrooms this quickly, problems may arise, which means extending the uncertain situation that we, as well as the students, have been stuck in for so long. If a teacher has to quarantine, the class will have to go online again, or will maybe even have to be cancelled entirely.”

Reitz: “We all want to return to campus, but it doesn’t feel justifiable yet.”

Tags: coronavirus