The university is taking the recent coronavirus restrictions very seriously, we find when we enter the event at the Erasmus Pavilion. Guests are handed hand sanitiser and face masks and are guided to the seats they have been assigned. Once inside the room, we are welcomed by the MC, Geert Maarse, as well as EUR Rector Magnificus Rutger Engels and Ron Bormans, the President of Rotterdam University of Applied Sciences’ Executive Board.

‘It absolutely sucks’

The first section of the evening is devoted to students’ experiences of the last six months. “The hardest thing is not knowing what your prospects are,” says Daan van Regteren, who is attending the debate on behalf of the Rotterdam Faculty Societies’ Umbrella Organisation. “We have no idea what exactly we are working towards or how much longer this crisis is going to last. In my capacity as a member of my society’s board, I’ve found that students are demotivated by this.”

Daphne van den Bongardt, an educational sciences expert and sociologist affiliated with ESSB, confirms this. “It absolutely sucks to be a student right now. These are unprecedented times, for young adults and students as well as anyone else. In addition to all the restrictions that are hampering in-person teaching, work placements and graduations, the lack of social interactions is causing mental health issues. Students are at increased risk of sadness, anxiety and depression. Although they are technically able to stay in touch via Zoom, it’s not the same as meeting people in person. I’m seeing many signs of isolation.”

Negative about students

‘We can’t check up on all our members all the time. What we can do is organise small-scale and safe events.’

Pita Elhorst (RSC/RVSV)

The second section is devoted to the way in which students are being treated. What do students need from the university, the government and the municipal authorities? “It’s a pity the media are being so negative about students,” says Pita Elhorst, the president of RSC/RVSV. “Many students actually comply with the measures, in hopes of their being eased soon. Moreover, societies are being dragged into it whenever something goes wrong – for instance, when members of a society throw a house party. So we have to explain to our members that they can’t do that, because we want to show the world that we are strict in this regard. But we can’t check up on all our members all the time. What we can do is organise small-scale and safe events so that people are less likely to try and do it at home themselves.”

Societeit RSG coronaproof

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In addition to the fact that many media have been blaming students for the rising infection rate, students feel that the municipal authorities and the government aren’t always listening to them. “The societies’ Eurekaweek plans and introduction weeks were cancelled,” says Pita. “Even though we’d spent half a year trying to come up with safe ways to organise our activities, no one actually bothered to look at our plans. That felt like we weren’t being taken seriously.”

Professor Semiha Denktaş is a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM)’s Coronavirus Conduct Unit. “I agree that we need to listen to students, and that we must take care not to polarise matters,” she says. “We must try and look beyond the few unpleasant incidents that have taken place. It’s vital that we talk to those students who do wish to comply with the rules. What is keeping you from following the rules in your daily lives? How can we help make things easier for you?”

1.5 metres = 13 cans of beer

studenten in coronatijd – erasmus paviljoen – prijsuitreiking beste corona-idee – Arie Kers
Rotterdam Councillor Said Kasmi (D66) awards the prizes to RSG and SSR. Image credit: Arie Kers

In the third section, the attendees seek to arrive at some solutions together. One point that has been made over and over again is the fact that students need some alternatives. Now that house parties and clubs heaving with people are no longer an option, students feel a need for another place where they can meet. Furthermore, the students in the room indicate that they would like to receive clear communications, in which the emphasis is not solely on all the things that have been banned, but also on the things they are allowed to do.

At the end of the evening, a prize was awarded to the party that has come up with the best idea to ensure that young adults comply with the restrictions. Rotterdam Councillor Said Kasmi (D66), who holds the education portfolio, awarded prizes to RSG and SSR. Both societies will receive €5,000.

RSG drew up an ambitious plan involving a scaling-up of parks and special press conferences for students. For its part, SSR’s plan is designed to raise awareness – among other things, by having parcels containing thirteen cans of beer delivered at student flats, with the thirteen cans together making up a metre and a half. SSR also wishes to create an escape room where the quick spread of a virus is shown with a blacklight.