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PM considers two scenarios for new academic year

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Dutch universities and universities of applied sciences are being instructed to prepare for two possible scenarios when it comes to the new academic year: one with and one without social distancing. The government’s message is not getting a warm reception, however.

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The situation surrounding the pandemic is moving in the right direction in the Netherlands, with a significant drop in the number of coronavirus patients. But will things stay this way? The government doesn'y yet dare saying how things will be in September. We’ll have to wait until mid-August for that.

That's why higher education will have to get ready for two different scenarios, according to the Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, and the Minister of Healt, Hugo De Jonge during a press conference last Friday. The next day, the Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, sent a letter to all educational institutions.

“I am asking you to prepare for a situation where social distancing measures have been relaxed”, she writes, “and at the same time to have a fall-back scenario ready with social distancing restrictions still in place.”

Too late
This is definitely not the kind of thing the Dutch National Student Association (ISO in the Dutch acronym) and the National student organisation (LSVb) were hoping to hear. “The whole country has been allowed to go back to the office, go on holiday and festivals, but students are once again being kept hanging”, protested Lisanne de Roos, ISO's new chairperson. “It’s unfathomable that students and institutions have to be kept in uncertainty even longer about how the upcoming academic year will be organised: the 13th of August is way too late.” LSVb believes institutions should plan for “the best possible scenario”, according to its new chairperson Ama Boahene, which means going back to the classroom.

They are not alone. “The universities of applied sciences are assuming the most optimal scenario: no more social distancing after August 15”, declared Maurice Limmen, chairperson of Association of Universities of Applied Sciences. “We are ready to re-open our campuses completely and responsibly.”

Good news
The Association of Research Universities (VSNU) would also rather not think about restrictions. “It’s really good news that almost all coronavirus restrictions for higher education are being terminated”, celebrated chairperson Pieter Duisenberg. “That means that first-year students will be able to enjoy their introduction week and we can look forward to a new academic year without restrictive measures.”

Despite the importance of education on campus, universities are nonetheless pleased with online learning, at least in part. “Universities will be adopting the good elements of remote learning in order to make further improvements to their educational programmes”, reads one response.

They are thinking about “blended learning” programmes, a mix of physical and virtual classes. They also see something in “offering lecturers more intensive technological and pedagogic support” in their teaching, according to a brief statement on the website.

Albeda College
Seen in this light, online education is not going anywhere yet, despite all the cheering about phasing out coronavirus restrictions. How will this all play out in practice, however? It’s still a waiting game.

Secondary vocational school Albeda College in Rotterdam is the first to explicitly announce that even after the coronavirus crisis, some of their courses will still be offered online. “Covid-19 has taught us a lot; we want to avoid returning to the way it was before”, the chairperson of the College says. “Onward to the new normal.”

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