Studying and working at a metre and a half, how are we going to do that?

The Education Parade at the beginning of March was the last large-scale university event for the time being, Photo DUB.

Crowded lecture halls are a thing of the past for the time being. The corridors can't be crowded for a while. And how long will it take? Hardly anyone dares to count on us being rid of the coronavirus by September.

But the gates can't stay closed forever. Little by little, we're moving into what Prime Minister Mark Rutte calls a ‘metre-and-a-half-society’. What will the 'new normal' look like in higher education? The universities, like all other sectors of society, will have to come up with well-considered plans before they are allowed to reopen.

Use lecture halls for one third only
Last week, UU set up five working groups to investigate the consequences of the corona crisis. Director of the Facility Service Centre Eddie Verzendaal leads a working group that will investigate what the standard of 'a metre and a half’ means for the use of space in university buildings.

In view of possible relaxation of the national corona policy, Verzendaal wants to report basic principles to two other working groups that focus on the consequences of the corona crisis for education and research respectively in a week's time.

Verzendaal’s assignment is rather extensive. The biggest issue in scope is the organisation of the lectures and seminars. "We have to look at what we do with the education space. You can probably only use it for a third or half. The question is also whether we can maintain our timeslot model for courses. That goes hand in hand with high student mobility. Is that wise?"

But regular business operations also require attention. "Maybe we should start working with shifts so that not everyone is at the office at the same time. And meetings with more than five people might just be better done online".

The greatest pressure to take clear measures quickly comes from the research department. Verzendaal and his working group are looking at how labs and other research facilities can be put back into operation safely.

Although UU has already announced that all education and all testing of block 4 will also take place online, Verzendaal would like the new rules to enter into force on 1 June. Until that date the Cabinet has banned major meetings, which includes education.

Considering canteens
Other universities of applied sciences and universities are also considering the implications of the metre-and-a-half-requirement, according to an inquiry of the ‘Hoger Onderwijs Persbureau’ (HOP; Higher Education Press Office). The questions are manifold. Will there be classes in the evening? Should large sports halls be rented, for exams for example? And what about practical exams? Can the canteens be opened?

Another important question: May teachers and students refuse to come to the building? They may have good reasons. Suppose they fall into the at-risk group and already have lung problems, for example, or they do not want to infect their elderly parents or their vulnerable partners. A survey by the ‘Algemene Onderwijsbond’ (AOb; General Education Union) shows that many teachers in the rest of education are concerned about the risks when schools reopen.

And for new freshmen, the crisis is also a pity: what about all the introduction parties and the introduction period? The associations and introduction committees have to come up with something, because cosy rows of sleeping mats in the sports hall or students packed as sardines in the pub will not be possible this year. And of course, you can't cancel everything. But what are the alternatives?