By Levin Stamm and Tal Ben Yakir
For the majority of students, the lifting of almost all COVID-19 measures at Dutch universities since September 25th has been liberating. The face mask, an integral part of public life for over a year and a half, has widely disappeared from hallways and classrooms.
However, the Dutch government’s decision to move towards a post-COVID-19 environment in higher education remains by no means undisputed. At AUC, lecturer Matt Cornell’s resignation put on spot the university’s difficulties to justify the relaxation of its policies, considering that a few staff members and students are still at a considerable risk of falling seriously ill when contracting the virus.
The remaining insecurity around COVID-19 among staff and students prompts a good number of university lecturers to uphold the mask mandate in their classrooms. One of them is Dr. Lotte Tavecchio, who has been teaching at the university since the very first day, currently co-lecturing “Big Questions in Language, Power and (dis)Empowerment” and “Advanced Research Writing: “Putting on a mask when no one else does requires courage, because you stand out. We also didn’t want to put students under pressure by asking them if they are vaccinated. With everyone wearing a mask, we wanted to create an inclusive environment for learning in this in-between stage of the pandemic,” she says.
Tavecchio and her co-lecturers noticed at the beginning of the academic year that “many things weren’t clear and that this had led to a lot of unanswered questions.” In a departmental meeting before the start of the first-year’s introduction week, several AUC lecturers, also acting as tutors, reported that students had approached them, raising concerns about the feeble COVID-19 restrictions at Dutch universities.
By continuing to wear masks in the classroom, Tavecchio hopes to protect those who have not had the opportunity yet to get their second dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, but also teachers who do not feel entirely comfortable with the situation because of their own health or medical history. Tavecchio explains that “once everyone has theoretically had the chance to get their shot, we will re-evaluate the situation together with the class.”
Even among AUC lecturers, Tavecchio’s response to the lifting of COVID-19 measures remains the exception. Most lecturers prefer to closely implement the guidelines that the government stipulates – for example Dr. Michael McAssey who teaches several statistics and research methods courses at AUC. “If you have the confidence that pretty much everyone is either vaccinated or recovered, masks or maximum group sizes are not necessary anymore,” he says.
McAssey sees the following as the crucial question when it comes to lifting COVID-19 measures: “Are the people in the building either vaccinated or recovered – or do they at least get regularly tested?” McAssey knows that the vaccination rate among staff is high and believes that the same must be true for the student body. “AUC students are generally conscientious. They don’t fall prey to conspiracy theories as much as people in general.”
Responding to student and staff concern about the current COVID-19 regulations, McAssey says: “Students are of course welcome to continue wearing masks – and if they feel really uncomfortable, they can join the class via zoom. The same applies to staff members who are still allowed to teach online.”
But not all lecturers put their trust in the government guidelines. Dr. Farid Boussaid, a lecturer at the University of Amsterdam and co-director of The Amsterdam Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, believes that the government guidelines for higher education have been inconsistent throughout the process, both externally when compared to the rules applied to wider society, as well as internally within universities. He explains, “You lift mask regulations in other areas of society, such as supermarkets, yet you impose them on students when they enter the university building. But then they don’t have to wear them when they are sitting down in a small room. There was no logic to it.”
Boussaid understands that universities are simply following government orders. However, he believes they could and should have gone one step further by implementing extra measures to create a safe environment for staff and students — something he believes UvA did not do enough. He explains, “I think erring on the side of caution would be better than taking risks. Also because staff and students are very mobile people, who travel a lot and are in contact with a wide range of people. That means they can potentially be superspreaders.”
Another point of frustration for Boussaid was the constant emphasis on students, their needs, and their desire to return to in person education: “Staff also want to come back, they are also tired of Zoom,” he says. “But the staff have valid needs that also need to be safeguarded. They are sometimes older or they are at risk even though they’re vaccinated. And some of our staff also take care of elderly people.”
Boussaid believes that university management could have done more in terms of consultation. He states that UvA should have asked lecturers what they were comfortable with or what they needed before making a decision regarding the return to normal education.
“The government took a stance, and then right away the university also took a position and that was it. It was left to departments to figure out what to do in terms of extra measures.”