To go or not to go to class? That is the question. Photo: DUB

Compulsory attendance: UU students get additional explanation

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About 150 Social Sciences students have signed an open letter complaining about the obligation to attend many courses of their faculty. They say they sometimes feel forced to attend classes despite having symptoms that could be indicative of a coronavirus infection. Since they are not the only ones fearing their graduation might be delayed if they call in sick, UU decided to send out an additional explanation to all students this week.

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The letter led the student members of the council of the Faculty of Social Sciences to conduct a survey. One of the questions aims to find out to what extent students are coming to the university despite having a cold or other symptoms associated with the coronavirus. Additionally, respondents are being asked whether they take a self-test and/or go to the local health services (GGD in the Dutch acronym) before deciding to attend their classes anyway.

The survey has been completed by 450 students so far. Next week, the student council members intend to present the results to the Faculty Board, together with a recommendation. This has not yet been coordinated with the staff members of the council. While waiting for those meetings, the intern chair of the student members, Morris Verholt, cannot comment on the situation.

Delighted
Due to privacy reasons, the students of the Faculty Council prefer not to send us the letter, which is basically a Google Docs document, nor do they want to say who wrote it. Therefore, DUB cannot confirm who has received the letter. It was addressed to ‘the Faculty of Social Sciences’ and to journalists of RTV Utrecht.

Verholt: “After we got in touch with the initiators of the letter, we discussed the next moves together. We were delighted with this initiative, as it tackled a problem we had also identified ourselves. Ultimately, we decided to continue tackling this as a Faculty Council, alongside the Education Committees and the Board. That seemed the most effective way for us.”

*Update* After the publication of this article, the three students responsible for the petition reached out to DUB. Read more.

Plenty of possibilities
The Faculty Board of Social Sciences decided, partly due to the letter, to send out an e-mail to all students last Wednesday. The decision was also informed by recent indications that many students are coming to classes while having symptoms and without getting tested.

In the e-mail, students are reminded to stay at home if they have Covid-related symptoms, unless they have a negative self-test or PCR test. The Faculty Board also writes that there “is room to compensate for absence and prevent graduation delays”.

Other UU Faculties are planning on sending similar e-mails to their students.

No perverse incentives
According to teacher and Faculty Council member Kirsten Buist, the situation entails a recognisable and current discussion. She says that the Faculty Board and their Education Directors had already advised all teachers not to be too strict with their attendance requirements, giving students options. “Students should not get perverse incentives and come to campus despite having symptoms.”

Several programmes have sent this message to their students over the past few weeks. “Students should not automatically fall behind when they get Covid symptoms. There are always solutions: consult your teacher, tutor or coordinator.”

At the same time, Buist acknowledges that teachers often stand in a crossroads. “Students prefer to do everything hybrid. The Faculty has deliberately chosen not to. The work pressure faced by teachers is already incredibly high when they only teach on campus.”

Compulsory attendance not being abolished
A previous article published by DUB showed that students with the flu or cold find it hard to stay at home, as they are afraid of delaying their graduation. They also experience a lot of stress. The University Council also addressed the problem this week.

The Executive Board acknowledged that it still isn't clear to many students what they should do when they are ill and they have a compulsory seminar or exam. According to Rector Henk Kummeling, that's why the board has arranged with all faculty boards to explain to their students once more what the policy is and insist that they stay home when needed. The e-mail from the Faculty of Social Sciences is an example of that.

The university is striving to provide as many educational activities on campus as possible. But, in order to do so, it is crucial that students adhere to the measures, get tested when having symptoms and stay at home when necessary. The university, in its turn, must be flexible when the policy leads to problems and should provide as much customisation as possible.

Difficult in practice
Abolishing compulsory attendance altogether is off the table, stated Henk Kummeling during the meeting. He emphasized that not all courses require compulsory attendance. “But there could also be specific reasons why students must be actually present. Think about practicums or internships, but that could also apply to education standards. Of course, we should still see whether there are fitting solutions when a student really isn’t able or allowed to come.”

Council member Chiara Stam provided a little insight into how that last point is difficult in practice. When she had to cancel a compulsory meeting last minute, she was told to get in touch with a tutor or study advisor. “But I could only go there ten days later.”

VU petition
At other universities, students are considerably upset about how the programmes are handling sick students or students in quarantine.

At Vrije Universiteit, in Amsterdam, at least 2,500 students signed a petition asking for online exams in the upcoming examination period. In their view, large-scale exams on campus are irresponsible given the current Covid situation. They mentioned a recent article on Dutch newspaper Het Parool about students who still went to their seminars despite having coronavirus symptoms out of fear of delaying their graduation.

In Maastricht, Law students are requally afraid to come into contact with students who have Covid but still show up to exams out of fear. According to the university newspaper Observant, more than 200 students have signed a petition asking the university to hold the exams online instead of having students gather in a large congress centre as usual.

LSVB launches hotline
The National Student Union (LSVB) has launched a hotline for students feeling forced to go to campus. Universities are too keen to see their students return to campus, according to the union. Chair and UU student Ama Boahene finds the strict enforcement of compulsory attendance "inappropriate" considering the high rate of coronavirus infections.

Boahene notes that many students are afraid to miss an exam opportunity. She also stresses that they can be expelled from courses if they miss too many classes. The hotline was created with the aim to identify the scale of the problems related to compulsory attendance.

In The Hague, students' concerns haven't gone unnoticed. Arguing that the health of students and teachers is compromised by this type of attendance policy, the Socialist Party asked the minister of education whether she agrees that it’s absurd to maintain the obligation in these times.

*Update published on December 10, 2021*

Present online, but actually absent

Nina Pusic, student of Interdisciplinary Sciences, got in touch with DUB to reveal that she is the person who took the initiative of starting the petition, alongside Renee Borneman and Floor Scheenstra, both of them students of Cultural Anthropology.

The idea came about after Nina went through a frustrating experience: when she got sick and had to quarantine, she heard that she would have to follow classes online through MS Teams. However, she would still be marked as "absent".

The three friends noticed that other students were having the same problems. "That's why we wrote the letter on Google Docs. It was signed by over a hundred students in no time."

With the letter, the trio aims to show that many students are receiving mixed messages. It is not uncommon for people to catch a cold this time of the year and many students share their accommodation with several others, which increases the risk of having to quarantine. “We are being punished for following the guidelines set by the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM).”

They demand that students who have to quarantine be marked as "present" if they follow lectures and tutorials online. They understand that teachers would like to see students actively participate in their classes, and that the university does not want to encourage students to stay at home without having to. But, in their view, this situation could be solved byputting students together online. They also think that students who are inclined to follow the rules shouldn't be punished because of a small group of students who would take advantage of the situation.

“This feels unfair to us, because we do pay the full tuition fees and may incur in graduation delay despite the fact that many of us do attend lectures online.”
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