What is the best way for us to return to university next year?

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It’s hard not to be torn between two minds when answering this question: the way I’d love to return to university, and the way we must in order to protect ourselves. In an ideal world the risk of coronavirus causing more suffering in September will be minimal, we’ll be able to go back to business as usual and enjoy normal university life. Lectures will be full, societies will be thriving, and nights out even better after months of lockdown. The R-rate will be low enough that the University can implement Plan A, normality, rather than Plan B, a teaching estate run at 20% capacity, tragically rendering normality impossible.

Unfortunately, it seems Plan B is our most likely option, according to vice-chancellor Stuart Corbridge in his recent email. If we are in the health situation that Plan B will respond to, I must agree that it is the best way to return to university to ensure the safety of our community, the local community, and bring back beloved normality sooner rather than later.

Though the worst of the pandemic should be over, the risks to health still remain.

In this case, we must all continue to keep physical contact with other people to a minimum. Naturally, some of this responsibility is the University’s, for example ensuring teaching groups are small and students spread apart.

Also important is the risk of students who live in college mixing with students in teaching time. Some universities plan to put students in ‘bubbles’, where students in the same teaching groups also live in the same accommodation to reduce interaction. Durham might have to implement a similar policy, which would be unfortunate, especially for freshers, but necessary.

Departments must also put measures in place to assure students that teaching standards remain as high as they would be in normal times. Though I acknowledge lecturers had little time to prepare since the termination of contact hours was so sudden, the replacement for lectures must be of a higher standard than we experienced in the two weeks affected by the recent campus closure. Lectures should be recorded and posted online as the bottom line, not just detailed notes. Encore is a useful system that should still be taken advantage of.

Every tragedy is an opportunity for learning.

If the Bill Bryson library is deemed unsafe to reopen, the University must ensure literature is accessible since many key texts are only available as a hard copy. The library could begin a ‘reserve and collect’ service whereby librarians take books out for students to collect at the desk, with measures in place to reduce the risk of infection.

But there is only so much the university can do. Students must also take responsibility to protect each other’s wellbeing. Another great concern is the risk posed by interaction between students walking to and from contact hours. Although footfall will be significantly reduced without physical lectures, most of us know how busy Church Street, for example, becomes five minutes before and after every hour. On the way to seminars and tutorials we must practise social distancing, perhaps wearing masks to reduce the risk of infection further. 

Without sacrificing normality now, there will be no chance of enjoying the experience we love later down the line.

Hopefully, restrictions will not surpass Christmas, but I believe it would be unwise not to continue some degree of conscious sanitary practise to reduce the spread of disease generally. Every tragedy is an opportunity for learning. As with every industry requiring close contact, hygiene should remain a top priority both on an individual and a University level going forward.

Despite everything in me wishing otherwise, it’s looking like Michaelmas 2020 is going to be a difficult one, and ultimately an upsetting prospect for everyone studying in Durham next year. But without sacrificing normality now, there will be no chance of enjoying the experience we love later down the line. Upon going back to university, we must live and act in a way not for ourselves, and consider that though the worst of the pandemic should be over, the risks to health still remain.

Photograph: Gerry Lynch via Flickr

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