Erasmus University staff are busily consulting about the specifics of the future ‘1.5-metre campus’. When the new anti-coronavirus regulations enter into force on 20 May, this may bring new activity to the Rotterdam campus. Universities in Tilburg, Maastricht and Leiden have already announced that they will be limiting themselves to digital instruction until the end of the academic year. Both EUR and the University of Amsterdam, on the other hand, plan to re-examine their options on 1 June.

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During the Thursday morning broadcast of Erasmus TV, the Chair of EUR’s Executive Board, Hans Smits, said that he feels optimistic about the future: “There will still be a Eurekaweek and an official opening of the academic year – albeit in a different form. Of course, we were also disappointed to hear the current measures will remain in effect, but we understand the reasons to do so. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

One-and-a-half metre taskforce

The government has asked every sector and organisation to draw up a plan, says spokesperson Imad el Kaka. “This plan needs to clarify how the organisation can physically return to its activities while simultaneously complying with the 1.5-metre guideline. In our case, these activities involve education, research and operational management. The Erasmus MC falls beyond this scope.”

The following aspects are specifically taken into account when examining the university’s options and drafting the plan: education, examinations, study areas, research, offices, students, campus (including sports, retailers, etc), events, traffic and transport, suppliers, building management and student housing. “Over the next few weeks, the taskforce – which includes representatives of various support services, disciplines and faculties – will be coming together to jointly draw up a plan that offers input for further decision-making.”

‘The plan needs to clarify how the organisation can physically return to its activities while simultaneously complying with the 1.5-metre guideline’

Imad el Kaka

Substantial reduction in capacity

One of the members of this taskforce is Marijke Weustink, Director of Real Estate Services and Facility Management: “As you may imagine, on a normal day the campus is filled with students enjoying the sun. In the near future, they can still do this – as long as they practice social distancing.” According to Weustink, the food court can also be set up like a supermarket, with lines marked on the floor and access restrictions.

Nor will EUR’s offices and lecture rooms be filled to capacity. “Our auditorium usually takes 900 people. If everyone maintains a 1.5-metre radius, this drops to 130. Likewise, a lecture room in the Mandeville Building, which normally has room for 75 people, will only take 15.” And local public transport capacity also promises to pose quite a challenge, says Weustink.

The Chair of the Executive Board, Hans Smits, emphasises that the 1.5-metre measures won’t be at the expense of the provided education: “I guarantee that in the near future, people will still be able to earn their degree, relying on both physical and digital education.”

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University extra vulnerable

For the time being, areas where large groups of people come together are most at threat in the current crisis – making an institution like EUR extra vulnerable. If the university nevertheless decides to open the campus, this step needs to be accompanied by far-reaching adaptations, says urban planner Harm Tilman, Editor-in-Chief of De Architect. “The entrance areas will need to be restructured, and you could consider taking people’s temperature at the gate and setting up facilities for washing or disinfecting your hands. After entering the building, users can be encouraged to preserve the required distance with walking routes and one-way traffic.”

He calls on fellow planners to anticipate the crisis. “You can see things slowly changing for the better. One solution that I found particularly charming was the plan to turn the street market on Binnenrotte into a decentralised market. We need to see more of these kinds of solutions. If you can’t avoid bringing people physically together, you need to develop alternative arrangements.”

Online becomes the new normal

Nevertheless, it makes sense to keep organising as many activities as possible in digital form,” says Tilman. “But informal encounters – like when you meet up in between lectures – are very important too. Usually, they’re a kind of by-catch. So maybe this will require some conscious planning in the future.”

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According to Philosophy professor Jos de Mul, it remains to be seen whether the 1.5-metre rule will become ‘the new normal’. “Digitalisation, on the other hand, has become normal in all sorts of shapes. The crisis has served as a catalyst for a process that has been going on for some time now. Out-of-town students working on their thesis already preferred to confer via Skype. And we were already offering video lectures within our double degree programme. As far as we’re concerned, the current situation is a continuation rather than a caesura.” Still, in many respects, online education can’t completely replace face-to-face contacts, emphasises De Mul. “Direct interaction in a group setting is very important. It’s all about body language and sharing the same space. People are social animals, and learning is a social process.”

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The Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) has also set up several taskforces, which are working hard to formulate policy for when university campuses are gradually allowed to open up again. VSNU spokesperson Bart Pierik: “We’re still in the midst of the ideation phase. Groups with representatives from various universities are working hard to formulate these concepts. They include both administrators and people specialised in integrated safety and security.” Come 20 May, the association hopes to have plans ready for a variety of scenarios.