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Foto: Teska Overbeeke (UvA)

Lecturers worried about on-campus education: ‘Covid is like Russian roulette’

Sterre van der Hee,
31 januari 2022 - 10:47
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As of today, almost all education takes place on the campus again. Students have been asking for this for some time, but there is concern among lecturers. ‘In November, about 12 percent of the group was infected.’

For lecturer Hege Elisabeth Kjos (international law), the coronavirus feels like a kind of Russian roulette. ‘So much is still unclear,’ she says. ‘How sick do you get, how long does it stay with you, even if you are vaccinated? When do you get long covid? You read stories about young people in care who have been sitting at home for ages with complaints after a covid infection.’

‘Government policy is based on wishful thinking, not on a scientific basis’

Kjos is not the only lecturer with concerns. The return to on-campus education brings with it a great deal of uncertainty and feelings of insecurity, according to a survey among UvA lecturers. Lecturers are worried about their health, inadequate compliance with the rules and increased work pressure, partly due to infected colleagues dropping out. The Central Works Council (COR) had previously reported similar noises. ‘Many employees feel it is too dangerous to work at the university at the moment,’ chairman Gerwin van der Pol said at the time. ‘We cannot sacrifice ourselves as teachers because students are more important.’


Wishful thinking

To be clear: almost all lecturers see the advantage of physical education, emphasises Njal van Woerden, lecturer in philosophy of science at the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies and member of the COR. ‘Online lectures lack everything that makes education fun,’ he says. ‘You close your laptop and it is totally unclear whether students have learned something. In addition, lecturers for online education have to become ICT specialists. I hadn’t thought of that when I started studying philosophy.’

Njal van Woerden

At the same time, Van Woerden observes problems with the reopening of on-campus education. ‘Some lecturers are critical of the current policy,’ he says. ‘The government measures are by no means always in line with the advice of the Dutch Outbreak Management Team, and the university follows the government measures, because those are the most lenient. But government policy is based on wishful thinking, not on a scientific basis.’ A critical group says: let's be sensible and always follow the OMT guidelines. Lecturer Kjos agrees. ‘It is as if we see The Hague as a kind of Delphic Oracle.’


Lecturer on a screen

For older lecturers and employees with a vulnerable family member, this period seems to bring extra stress. One of them is Charlotte Hille (political economy), who is not teaching from the UvA campus during this period. ‘I have a vulnerable family member which I want to protect,’ she says. ‘That’s why I experimented with a hybrid working method this autumn.’ During lectures, Hille is visible on a screen while students are sitting in the lecture hall. ‘The students do assignments, work together in groups and can ask questions. It works very well. Even during morning lectures at nine o’clock, everyone was present and students could participate online. This way everyone gets their money’s worth, students who are in quarantine can still attend lectures – quite ideal, given the situation.’


Hille sees little difference between the students’ involvement in the on-campus lectures and the hybrid lectures. ‘I let them discuss and engage with the material and they ask questions. This is a really good option if you can’t be on campus. Ideally, of course, you’re all there, but that’s not an option for me right now.’

On paper, the course may well meet all the requirements – students can keep some distance in the labs and they can wear a mouth mask – but in practice, these measures are not adhered to

Infected in the lab

Not everyone has the choice to teach online. Richard de Boer, lecturer in life sciences and subject coordinator at biomedical sciences, psychobiology and Amsterdam University College, gives laboratory practicals that had to go on even during the strictest lockdowns – albeit in a slimmed-down form. ‘During the lockdowns, I could sometimes only give practicals for one or two days a week,’ he says. ‘It’s great that I can now keep students in the room for longer: you don't learn laboratory research from your computer. I notice that the subject matter is better absorbed in the lab because they can also carry out activities.’


But the current contamination figures also bring about ‘challenging situations’, De Boer says, who was instructed to organise the course ‘as before’. On paper, the course may well meet all the requirements – students can keep some distance in the labs and they can wear a mouth mask – but in practice, according to De Boer, these measures are not adhered to. ‘We work with fifty, sixty people in rooms that can hold over seventy people. Students sit together with supervisors at different tables to do experiments, that is unavoidable. In addition, mouth masks are not allowed all the time because students work with hazardous substances.’

Richard de Boer

Students also share materials, walk around in circles and groups of 128 people are pushing at the lockers in a dead-end corridor before they enter the lab. ‘Officially this is allowed, because it is a transit location, and they wear masks, but sometimes the next group of 128 students is already pushing again.’


In November, a group of students and staff members from the lab became infected: De Boer knows of seven positive coronate tests. ‘That was about 12 percent of the group. People are not obliged to share the test results, so the exact number may have been higher.’ Attendance is mandatory for De Boer’s practicals: if you are absent twice, you are expelled and are not allowed to do an internship in the third year. ‘Perhaps this makes students less inclined to cancel. We also saw this at the Vrije Universiteit, where infected students went to lectures after all due to the mandatory attendance.’


De Boer reported the outbreak ‘through the usual channels’: to the safety expert, the study director and the study coordinator. ‘A week later, the Executive Board sent an e-mail to everyone saying: “The way we show consideration for each other in the buildings and the attention to ventilation have together ensured that the UvA is not a source of contamination.” Then I contacted the safety expert. Had my report gone to the right place at all?’ An answer showed that the Board had formulated the e-mail in an unfortunate way.


Solving additional problems

Although De Boer is not afraid of his own safety – ‘I’ve survived everything for forty years now’ – as subject coordinator he does see concerns among his lab staff. For instance, one lab employee recently informed De Boer that he no longer wanted to work with students: the employee is a bit older and has a partner who is vulnerable. Such situations also result in increasing work pressure, he says. ‘According to the University Board, a solution must be found in consultation with the supervisor. I completely understand this lab employee, but I have to fill a gap at a moment’s notice.’

‘As a university you can’t keep taking advantage of the goodwill and energy, because ultimately it is at the expense of people’

When voids occur due to infections, quarantines or covid fear, it is often solved ‘on the floor’, lecturers say. Colleagues just work a bit harder. For example, for first-year courses with lab practicals, the prognosis is that many students will drop out in the first few weeks due to corona complaints – lecturers then have to facilitate a catch-up day. ‘In holidays, evenings or weekends. That means extra hours, extra work, extra stress,’ De Boer says. ‘I can hire new people, but they also have to be trained. Sometimes I wonder whether these problems also reach the management.’


COR chairman Van der Pol also finds it striking to see how many lecturers ‘just carry on’. This energy has to come from somewhere, he says. ‘As a university you can’t keep taking advantage of the goodwill and energy, because ultimately it is at the expense of people. That worries me.’ The university board previously let it be known that employees would be allowed to forgo 20 per cent of their work, he says. ‘”Good enough” should also be enough. But which 20 per cent do you drop? At the university, we are all perfectionists.’


Van Woerden observes that people are running out of steam. ‘Online education was no fun, but apart from the covid fear, the constant changing between online and offline also bring a lot of unrest and uncertainty,’ he says. ‘It’s as if we are still in crisis mode, even after two years. At Utrecht University’s Faculty of Humanities, the immediate reaction was: we close our doors physically and everything is online. That is a high price to pay - online education causes students to fall behind in some areas - but it also provides a lot of peace and quiet.’