On 28 February, virologist Marion Koopmans says in an interview with EM that a total lockdown will not be ordered anytime soon: “That’s not the policy in the Netherlands or most of Europe.” At the same time, Hans Smits (President of the Executive Board) warns that students returning from the ‘corona zone’ in Northern Italy should not be barred from attending lectures.
This article is part of a special issue of EM about the corona crisis. The paper version of the magazine can be found around campus Woudestein. Also, the magazine can be read entirely online.
Delft University of Technology is the first university to take concrete measures after a student becomes infected with the virus. As of 2 March, the TU advises not to shake hands anymore. This leads to an awkward meeting in a community centre in Rotterdam South, where Erasmus University, TU Delft and Erasmus MC are jointly presenting plans for the future. The people of Delft do not want to shake hands while the people of Rotterdam respect that wish, albeit somewhat non-plussed. Around that time, most EUR students scarcely seem to care about corona. “Most of those dying are the elderly. I’m young and healthy, so I’m basically not that scared,” a psychology student tells an EM reporter.
On March 6, even Rogier Ragetlie, the university’s Integral Safety coordinator, doesn’t yet see things getting out of hand. “I had the impression that it could happen, but not on such a national scale,” he says on reflection. At the beginning of March,he cautiously answered the question of when corona could lead to lecture halls being closed down: “That would be a very grave measure, because it impacts students’ study programmes. We would be obliged to do that if the mayor orders us to do so, but of course we aim to avoid the need for such a measure. Nevertheless, students’ and staff’s safety come first, so if it is mandatory, we won’t hesitate to do it.”
One day later, the province of North Brabant shuts down. Residents with symptoms are asked to stay at home, and this also applies to EUR students and staff. “You have to do something about that, because how will it affect attendance and exams?” says Ragetlie, himself a Brabant resident who also begins working from home from that day on.
Meanwhile, international students and staff are stepping up the pressure. They hear that their home countries are already introducing measures, so why isn’t the EUR doing that yet? Anne van de Graaf, director of business operations at the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM), felt that her faculty could no longer avoid it. Her questions directed at Ragetlie’s contingency team resulted in her being invited to join. Van de Graaf: “From then on, we met twice a day. In the beginning we mainly discussed protocols and the best way to keep the community informed.”
We started a WhatsApp group to consult with each other, and the first few weeks you woke up each morning to another two hundred messages’
The situation escalates that same week. At Erasmus MC, the faculty follows the hospital’s guidelines and consequently large-scale lectures cease as early as 11 March. Shortly after that, medical exams are also cancelled. Karen Stegers-Jager is a researcher and coordinator of the decentralised selection for the school of medicine. The term ‘chaos’ best describes how she experienced the early days of the lockdown. “That Thursday, they told us: ‘We have no idea when you can come back.’ We had a training afternoon planned with a buffet, which we ended up eating ourselves.” At that point, Stegers-Jager is in the process of preparing the selection test, which was to take place on Saturday 12 March. “We were expecting 800 students. Then out of the blue, the test couldn’t be held. It was very surreal.”
The next day, 12 March, the rest of the EUR has still not undertaken any other major measures. But a petition from a Business Administration student to close the university is signed more than three thousand times by exasperated students. Not long after that, the Crisis Management Team, led by EUR chair Hans Smits, is advised by the VSNU umbrella organisation to prepare for cessation of all campus activities. The university resolves to do this at 3 pm. This is no easy decision, as exams were scheduled for 5 pm. Nevertheless, the abrupt cancellation was never questioned. “There was some discussion, but mainly about practicalities,” Ragetlie says. It was clear that everything had to be shut down.
That afternoon, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announces on television that all events have been cancelled for the time being and appeals to everyone to work from home whenever possible. The following Monday, the campus is a ghost town, just like the rest of the Netherlands and a large part of the world.
Yet this does not end the crisis mode that the university finds itself in. On the contrary, it is only just beginning. Classes must be held online, events must be cancelled or rescheduled, and a solution must be found for exams. The lockdown leads to strange scenes on campus, Ragetlie reminisces. “Staff moved their office plants en masse to the corridor so that they could still be watered. Fridges also had to be checked for perishable goods.”
The university did not waste any time. “The upside of such a crisis is that what normally takes two years, now gets done within two days,” Ragetlie explains. For example, the EUR – unlike most other universities – opts to start online education on the Monday immediately after the press conference. “It was utter chaos,” recalls Hans van den Berg, University
Council president and tutor at the ESSB. “Everyone did their very best, but the flow of information was negligible. Those professors who had to notify lecturers about new work methods first had to figure out how online education should be done.”
Another ESSB tutor, Ryan Morgan, describes the sudden changeover to digital education as ‘extremely stressful.’ “Once the lecturers had figured out how to switch their classes to digital, things suddenly sped up. We started a WhatsApp group to consult with each other, and the first few weeks you woke up each morning to another two hundred messages. The toughest question was: How do you manage to keep teaching at the same high level? Fortunately, students were the quickest when making the switch to digital.” Despite that stress, Morgan fully understands the prompt decision to continue online. “We didn’t know how it would turn out, but we thought it could be done. So, it’s best to fully commit to it. And that’s what we did, which turned out to be one of the best decisions the university has made.”
A notable exception is the Rotterdam School of Management (RSM). The faculty shut down classes for two weeks. “The Executive Board felt fairly uneasy about that and asked why we couldn’t get back to it straightaway,” says RSM director Van de Graaf. According to her classes restart on 30 March without any notable chaos. “We had time to decide how we were going to go about it, which software we would use, plus we managed to give everyone access to the right tools.” Yet later on tensions would also mount at the
RSM. There were at least two incidents involving students caught sharing information via WhatsApp during an online exam. Says Van de Graaf: “We found that incredibly shitty and were really disappointed.”
Big Brother exams
One week after the lockdown starts, 22 exams are on the Erasmus University College’s agenda. Consequently, staff have exactly one week to come up with a solution. The decision is made to use online proctoring, a digital monitoring method that ensures students do not cheat while taking exams at home. It is the first time that the university uses this occasionally controversial technology, although it will certainly not be the last. Miraculously, the week passes without any major glitches. Proctoring was not entirely new to Erasmus MC. Says Stegers-Jager: “A year earlier, we had done a small-scale test with about twenty students. At that time, there was little interest from other faculties, but we could make good use of it so that Antillean and Surinamese students could sit the selection test. We used to have to travel for that, but now we were able to do it remotely with the help of online proctoring.” However, the trial turned out to be a huge fiasco. “Technically, everything went wrong.” In spite of that experience, a year later she decides to conduct an online selection test for the 800 prospective medical students with proctoring. “It was a bit of a case of ‘hope for the best!’”
although we knew what we were getting into. You have to keep in mind that Cambridge and Harvard were already working with this by then and we also had experience working with it at the Clinical Technology department.” However, the test did not go smoothly. Afterwards, there were far more complaints than usual and rumours that some participants used WhatsApp. “But we weren’t able to prove it, nor did we see that reflected in the final grades.” The laptop camera didn’t work properly for some students either, but it is unclear whether this was intentional.
‘Staff saw suspicious people walking around the empty campus’
The EUR keeps its campus buildings open during the first weeks of the lockdown. Staff can still use their workspaces and a limited number of study spots are available to students. Nevertheless, the university decides to close its doors on 14 April, the day after Easter. One reason for this is the crime risk: “On security cameras, staff saw suspicious people walking around the empty campus. Of course, we had already had some experience with this before the crisis, with doors of certain offices being kicked in, so it wasn’t an implausible risk,” Van de Graaf adds. There are no reports about any eventual thefts however.
There was a great atmosphere during the first weeks of the crisis, Van de Graaf notes. “Obviously far-reaching decisions had to be made, but that all went fairly easily. Things just had to get done.” The fact that tensions eventually rise is mainly due to the workload. “We soon decided to also hold all our exams online. Considering how many students this entails, that’s just a nightmare. You have to devise all kinds of alternate ways to hold exams. However, if multiple-choice questions are replaced by open questions, teachers’ workloads increase enormously. So, they suggested that part of the exams could be covered in group assignments, for example. But the examination committee had difficulty with that too, since they’ve got to safeguard the quality of the exams.”
The university’s audio-visual departments work overtime throughout the lockdown. The Polak building studio broadcasts a daily talk show by EM and the Marketing and Communication department, with the latest news and stories from students and staff. Meanwhile, lecturers record their classes or broadcast them live en masse. Ragetlie: “We used existing classroom reservations as much as possible to facilitate this, which meant that lecturers could simply broadcast a lecture from their usual lecture room.” Around 2,500 lectures were recorded in March alone.
The contingency team continues to be operational, although there are no more twice-daily briefings. “We get together at least once a week,” Ragetlie says. “The team discusses societal developments, upcoming activities and potential scenarios, for instance. We factor in everything.”