The people in charge of universities and student organisations think that this is good news, but some lecturers are expressing concerns, referring to the Outbreak Management Team (OMT)’s experts, who recently recommended that the reopening of Dutch universities be put off for another three weeks. They said this would reduce the risks associated with the start of a new academic year.
“We were quite surprised by the Cabinet’s decision,” says Marijtje Jongsma, who serves on the board of the AOb trade union, which caters to educators. “The Ministry mainly spoke to university executives and students. Our chair was only invited once.”
The trade union has just distributed a survey among lecturers to identify their concerns, since the union feels that lecturers’ concerns were more or less ignored in the considerations regarding the reopening of universities.
Jongsma feels that many more measures could be implemented to ensure lecturers’ safety, such as rapid testing in order to be granted access, physical distancing and mandatory face masks during classes. “I know universities want to reopen their doors – we all want that, education is very important – but we mustn’t lose sight of reality.”
New academic year: wearing of masks, working from home and self-testing to remain
Het mondkapje keert terug in de gangen, en de meeste medewerkers zullen toch langer thuis…
Prof. Jeroen de Ridder of Amsterdam VU University is concerned, as well. He is the chair of the Young Academy, a society of prominent young researchers that is affiliated with the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences (KNAW). He expressed his concerns regarding the reopening of the higher education sector in a series of tweets.
He admitted that he did not speak for the entire Young Academy. “We’ve only just begun getting back into the swing of things after the summer holiday. I mainly wanted to provide a counterbalance to all the executive boards’ ecstatic responses to the reopening. There is another side to the story, as well.”
His feelings are rather ambiguous, he says. “Last year, students were having a really rough time of it, and we don’t want them to have to go through that again, so it’s a good thing that higher education institutions are reopening. But the OMT says that it’s better to wait a little while. Why are we not listening to them? And if we have to reopen, why not implement a few more preventive measures?”
De Ridder would like to see more testing, mandatory face masks in seminars and physical distancing restrictions, and also supports asking unvaccinated students to stay at home. However, he feels that requiring students to be vaccinated (as some American universities are doing) would be a step too far.
The National Student Union (LSVb) understands these concerns, says its chair, Ama Boahene. “It’s been a while. We all need to get used to things again. But I do think many lecturers are glad they’re able to teach on-campus seminars again.”
Boahene feels that it is everyone’s responsibility to keep the education sector safe. “Lecturers can keep their distance from students. They can wear face shields, too, if they want to.”
So what about the OMT’s recommendation to be cautious for a little while longer? “If we want to minimise the infection rate to the maximum extent possible, we can’t do a thing. But we’re also dealing with students’ well-being and good health. Those things were weighed against each other, and I’m glad they decided to reopen the education sector with immediate effect.”
Would reopening three weeks later really make such a huge difference? “It might seem a minor difference,” says Boahene, “but then education institutions would have to switch from online teaching to on-campus teaching midway through the term, which is too much to ask of lecturers. It would involve students having online teaching for the entire first term, and that’s just not on the cards anymore.”