“Several colleagues are wary about being in a classroom again”

“Several colleagues are wary about being in a classroom again”

Yes or no: ban unvaccinated students from the classroom

01-09-2021 · Opinion

Anyone who physically takes part in education activities should have themselves vaccinated, says the Maastricht Economics professor Bart Verspagen (see his Dutch column). As far as he is concerned, students who refuse should be banned from the classroom and referred to online education. Lecturers who are not vaccinated, can make themselves useful at the computer. A good idea?

Fons Coomans, professor holding the UNESCO chair for Human Rights: “No, I don’t think that is a good idea. Look, access to education is a human right, but it isn’t absolute. This means that this right may be limited in certain situations. For example, when health comes into play, like with this present pandemic.

“But the measures should be proportionate. I think a judge would not accept it, if you were to deny students who are not vaccinated access to the classrooms. Why not? Because there are alternatives that you could use to achieve the same objective: proof of testing, for example. Something else that must also be considered, is that students have missed out on contact with other students for more than a year now, just like the atmosphere and interaction in the classrooms. This all touches on the core of the right to education.

“However, I do hope that students - I teach a lot of foreign master’s students - have themselves tested before they attend tutorials. In the Oud Gouvernement (Bouillonstraat) lecturers find themselves in small spaces with fifteen students, where ventilation at times is not up to scratch. I know several colleagues, often somewhat older, who are wary of ‘being in a classroom again’. I myself have faith in my vaccination.”

Lotte Meerhof, student member of the University Council (for Dope): “I feel that it is very important that students and lecturers have themselves vaccinated, but that shouldn’t play a role in access to education. In this situation, everyone weighs the pros and cons differently. If an educational institute more or less forces students to have themselves vaccinated, then that infringes on the right to bodily integrity. That is not allowed. I do think it is a good thing to encourage students to be inoculated.

“I myself have had my first jab, but I also do a self-test every week, and I will continue to do so even after the second jab. The vaccine doesn’t give complete protection. You can still get Covid and pass it on to others. I’m not wary of returning to the tutorial group, but I know of students who are. That is why I feel that the university should always offer the opportunity of taking online classes.

“How safe is it actually, some students wonder? And what are the consequences of the relaxation of the rules? Will the number of infections skyrocket again? It would be really rough if we all ended up sitting at home again.”

Christian Hoebe, UM professor of Infectious Diseases and member of the Outbreak Management Team (OMT): “You shouldn’t only allow entry to those who have been vaccinated, but also those who have had the infection. A relatively large group among youths. Anyway, I do get Verspagen’s appeal, education should be safe. But we don’t have compulsory vaccination in the Netherlands at the moment. We will have to learn to live with a small risk. Also, with the present Delta variant, it is impossible to bring that down to zero, not even with compulsory vaccination. Moreover, such compulsion has a huge disadvantage: it creates antithesis between groups. I am more in favour of dialogue.”

Thomas Ziesemer, retired researcher at UNU/Merit: “I retired last year, but still teach some classes. I was supposed to teach a block in February, but that was cancelled. I only want to teach online, unless I was certain that everyone had been vaccinated or recently tested. I am familiar with the classrooms on the Boschstraat, and it is hardly possible to maintain a distance there.

“Moreover, as we have seen in primary and secondary schools, students will come to the campus even if they are not feeling well. As far as I am concerned, the risk of infection is too high. Things are not too bad in the Netherlands, but in Germany and Austria infection rates are rising seriously again, mainly because of the Delta variant. I would not make education completely accessible all at once, but by degrees. That seems safer to me.

“Certainly, students have not had an easy time the past year, but mainly because they were sitting at home all day long as a result of the lockdown, not because education was online.”

Lotte Thissen, lecturer-researcher at the department of Health, Ethics and Society (FHML): “If you don’t give unvaccinated students access to the classrooms, you are literally and figuratively shutting them out. In doing so, you reduce the chances of a dialogue, a discussion. And that is exactly what I think is needed. Also, we mustn’t forget what online education did to students, just how many suffered from mental health problems.

“It feels very double for me. I am worried, not so much about being infected but more so that I might infect others. But at the same time, I am eager to get started again, to be in the same space as the students, being involved in lively discussions again.”

Dennie Hebels, project manager and lecturer at MERLN: “I agree with Verspagen’s plea, and there are good arguments to support it at the moment. If you allow students or lecturers who have not been vaccinated access, they can infect others, it is as simple as that. But the question is: how great is that risk? You could wait until all students have had both vaccinations, but we are going to have to make that leap into higher education at some time or other. You can’t wait until the risk has completely disappeared. It reminds me of the rubber-flagstone society, I am really allergic to that.

“Also, look at how we used to view the flu. Many employees didn’t stay at home because they had a slight fever or headache and most likely they infected colleagues. Not at all comparable to the dangers associated with COVID-19, but these flu-infected employees also entered the hospital for a cappuccino. They stood in line behind really ill, older patients. Is that also unacceptable now?”

Bart Verspagen, professor of International Economics (UNU/Merit): “This week, I am teaching a small group of PhD students. I have asked the education co-ordinator to sound out whether the PhD students have or have not been vaccinated. It appeared that they have all had a jab. Had that not been the case, I would have given an online lesson. I don’t want to be infected, but it is not just about me, it is about everyone at the faculty. Some colleagues agree with me and have informed the faculty board of that fact. The board has not given a reaction yet.”

Survey among employees: how safe is the UM?

A quarter of Maastricht University employees expect not to feel safe upon their return to their workplaces in September. Almost 18 per cent has a ‘neutral’ opinion: not safe, but also not unsafe. These are some of the outcomes of a survey that was held by the Executive Board in June, the results of which were discussed in a webinar at the beginning of July.
The main fear is about meeting students and staff from high-risk areas, vaccine refusers and meetings with large groups.

“Not that people aren’t happy to be here,” said Gerjo Kok, emeritus professor of Applied Psychology, in the webinar. “The majority wants to meet colleagues and students, but there are also worries.” And they can be explained, he thinks. Not just from a psychological point of view, because people have to get used to the new situation, having contact with ‘others’, but also because there are many uncertainties, such as new variants.
“Some of the staff is scared or stressed; we have to do something about that,” was rector Rianne Letschert’s reaction, who accompanied Kok during the webinar. Safety is a priority, she emphasised.

The survey was submitted to employees more than two months ago. Do they still feel the same? Or has the Executive Board been receiving other signs? According to spokesperson Koen Augustijn (who received information from the faculties’ Education Offices among others), a large majority is happy to be on campus again. There are a few practical things to get used to, however, such as following the correct walking routes, he says. “The stewards are not an unnecessary luxury”. And yes, there are still concerns, uncertainties and questions, but there are not many.

Where necessary, the protocol is made more explicit. An example: ‘How to deal with coughing colleagues or students with symptoms of a cold in a tutorial group?’. The basic principle is that people are not allowed to come to campus if they have cold complaints that indicate a corona infection. But what if they do walk around the faculty sniffling? On what basis can they be sent home? But also: how can students with allergies or, for example, asthma be helped so that they can stay on campus? “There is uncertainty about that; the guideline is now being adapted.”

Furthermore, Augustijn continues: “Staff with worries about safety may approach their managers, the education coordinator or the company doctor, while students may do so with their study advisor and the corona@maastrichtuniversity office.”