Education goes into ‘code red’ at Ghent University

Rik Van de Walle en Mieke Van Herreweghe
Rik Van de Walle and Mieke Van Herreweghe
Rik Van de Walle and Mieke Van Herreweghe are rector and vice-rector at Ghent University.

Code red. Starting from Monday 26 October, all teaching activities at Ghent University will happen in accordance with the highest safety level. Why have we taken this major step, what will change, and what stays the same?

Why code red?

Switching to code red is indeed a serious step, and of course we have not taken this difficult decision lightly. It is based on the hard facts about corona and on advice relating to this information, given by scientific experts in Ghent and elsewhere. The decision reflects our responsibility as a university – not only in relation to our students and staff, but to society as a whole.

Sadly we cannot escape the truth. Although it was still possible to start the academic year under code orange, the figures since then have dramatically worsened over these few weeks. The number of infections is still increasing rapidly, even for people in our students’ age bracket. Hospitals, including our own Ghent University Hospital, are not only concerned about an influx of COVID patients, but also about possible absences amongst medical and nursing staff and the potential impact this will have on other patient care. Experts from our own and other universities are therefore calling for decisive measures to minimise any further spread of the virus.

As a university, we attach great importance to mutual care and social responsibility and therefore we cannot ignore these alarming signs. Our students and staff must be able to study and work in the safest possible environment, so that we keep the risk of infection and illness at Ghent University as low as possible. Moreover, the university is not an island: we want to prevent students or staff from ‘exporting’ the virus and unknowingly infecting their (grand)parents, family, friends...

Rik Van de Walle
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What impact does this have on teaching?

At the same time, we are also responsible for ensuring that our students can keep up with their studies and acquire the skills they need with as little interruption as possible, even under these difficult circumstances. This semester and academic year must not be a 'lost' semester or year. For this reason, together with the other Flemish universities, this summer we developed a pandemic matrix (link in Dutch), providing guidelines on how best to organise teaching and learning under each of the different health and safety codes.

Under code red, the university stays open to our students: there is no lockdown like in the spring of 2020. However, experts advise that we should minimise the risk of infection as much as possible by limiting large flows of students into the university. Since distance learning offers a good quality alternative for classes that take place in auditoriums, under code red all lectures will happen online. Please note that the risk associated with lectures is not in the auditoriums themselves – since everyone sits at a safe distance from each other and is wearing a face mask. Rather, it relates to what happens just before or after the session, as relatively large groups of students all make their way to and from class at the same time. Not to mention the situation on some buses, trams and trains at peak hours. Could we ignore all of this? Yes! But do we want to ignore it? No, for precisely the reasons mentioned above: Ghent University attaches great importance to mutual care and social responsibility.

By organising lectures online, therefore, we are not only reducing the risks associated with large groups of people moving about at the same time. We are also making space, both literally and figuratively, for sessions like practical classes or seminars, which are harder or even impossible to organise online, but which are nevertheless vital if we want our students to acquire the requisite skills and knowledge. These practical classes and seminars take place in (much) smaller groups and can therefore be organised on campus in complete safety – albeit with students keeping a safe distance, wearing face masks, disinfecting their hands and shared materials, and with sufficient ventilation.

Mieke Van Herreweghe

Switching to code red also frees up space in our auditoriums and classrooms for students who do not have a quiet space to work at home or in their student accommodation. We will now be able to make these spaces available for any students who need them for work and study, of course still following all the appropriate measures to ensure that this can happen safely.

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And what about student wellbeing?

We realise that for many students, this code red is also in danger of becoming a code red for their mental health. Distance learning may offer a viable alternative to traditional lectures, but online teaching can never replace the social aspects of on campus education. We all learned this following last year's lockdown.

This is why we believe it is essential for our university to still stay open in a safe way. This will enable students to still meet each other in practical classes and seminars. On campus, they can also find a quiet place to work and study, while still following social distancing rules. They can ask for help, or just find a listening ear; knock on the door of their teacher or professor; check in with the learning track counsellor, the student counselling services, the study coach, the social worker or the student psychologist. And the student restaurants will also continue to provide meals for 'take away'.

We also really want to encourage our students to stay in touch with each other. Students can still follow online lessons together while staying a safe distance from each other, or participate in the corona-proof student activities organised by student associations. Because studying is more than just studying, especially in these extraordinary times of corona.

 

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Academic year 2020-2021

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