Under the new rules approved by the Dutch Cabinet, up to 75 students will be allowed to congregate in a lecture theatre at a time, and students are required to wear face masks at all times, wherever they are. So there is that, but at least they are allowed to return to campus.
An exception to the maximum number of students present in a single space will be made for exams, which can be attended by more than 75 students at a time.
Rumours of the intended relaxations of the restrictions had already spread prior to the Prime Minister’s press conference on Friday. Moreover, the new Minister for Education, Robbert Dijkgraaf, had already stated that reopening VET colleges and higher education institutions was high on his list of priorities.
“Young people have shown a great deal of resilience,” Dijkgraaf said in a press release, “but they are reaching the end of their ropes. Despite the high infection rate, we are imposing several measures that will allow us to teach in-person classes in a responsible manner.”
Students are advised to take a self-test twice a week (test kits can be ordered free of charge from www.zelftestonderwijs.nl or from students’ own education institution). Furthermore, students and staff are advised to wear single-use face masks rather than cloth masks.
Craving breathing space
Student organisations are glad the sector will be reopened. Lisanne de Roos, the chair of the Intercity Students’ Organisation (ISO), said the decision to reopen the education sector was ‘frankly the only right decision’. “In-person classes will give students the breathing space they’ve been craving, even if they will have to wear face masks.”
Ama Boahene, the chair of the National Student Union (LSVb), agrees. “Spending so much time at home has caused students to experience concentration issues, loneliness and mental health issues,” she says. “It’s absolutely wonderful that this will soon be a thing of the past. Now we must keep the momentum going and prevent the education sector from being closed again.”
Universities and universities of applied sciences have also expressed their gratitude. “We are relieved that our students will be given the opportunity to attend in-person classes again,” said Maurice Limmen, chair of the Netherlands Association of Universities of Applied Sciences. “In-person classes are crucial to our students’ wellbeing and personal development.”
Pieter Duisenberg, chair of the Association of Universities in the Netherlands, feels the same way, although he is aware that certain students and lecturers will not welcome the news. “Considering the rising infection rates, we will do it in the safest way possible, and we are definitely taking into account the concerns voiced by staff and students,” said Duisenberg.
Cafés and restaurants
Lockdown restrictions continue to apply to cafés, restaurants and cultural institutions, which means they also continue to apply to student societies’ clubhouses. Many people who work in cafés, restaurants and the culture sector are unhappy with the restrictions, and are asking why clothes shops or hairdressers’ salons (which are allowed to reopen) should be safer than a restaurant or museum.
“I completely understand that it feels incredibly unfair,” said the Prime Minister, “but the risk level is determined by the sum of all moments at which people come into contact with each other in society, meaning that not all public spaces can reopen at the same time.” Moreover, people tend to travel in order to visit museums, which would increase the risk.
In last Friday’s press conference, the Minister for Public Health, Ernst Kuipers, explained that while the Omicron variant of the coronavirus is less likely to result in serious health issues, it is a lot more contagious than previous variants. If too many people get infected at the same time, problems may still occur. Nevertheless, the Cabinet was prepared to take a bit of a risk by easing certain restrictions.
Kuipers told viewers that we must exercise to stay healthy. He also stated that two-thirds of young people are feeling lonely. “Keeping everything closed for even longer will negatively affect our health, too. But we do know that these relaxations will result in higher infection rates.”
By the time Friday’s press conference was held, people had already begun announcing that they would break the rules if the lockdown restrictions were extended. Shopkeepers in several municipalities had announced that they were planning to reopen their shops, regardless of what restrictions might be in force. Some mayors had announced that they did not intend to fine shopkeepers who did so.
“I feel no opposition,” said Rutte. He acknowledged that everyone is fed up with the coronavirus restrictions. “I’m over it, Ernst Kuipers is over it, we’re all over it.” However, he is keeping certain restrictions in place because he seeks to prevent people from being turned down by hospitals because there is no room for them in the hospitals due to all the COVID-19 patients.
The Cabinet is still working on an extension of the coronavirus app that grants people access to restricted places, which may be used to control access to the higher education sector, as well. However, the app will not be introduced for a while yet. The Minister for Public Health first wishes to determine the effect of such an app with regard to the highly contagious Omicron variant.