The fall from grace of everyone’s favourite fascist and a slowly rising cacophony of vaccine hysteria have injected the last few weeks with a sense of hope and a tinge of optimism which seem a bit out of place in 2020. Combined with the slow encroachment of Christmas fever into November, thoughts have started occasionally flicking towards the coming year, and, for the most part, things are looking good. Almost too good. So good in fact, that the Minister for Providing-Students-with-False-Hope, Simon Harris, announced last week that he would “like to see some more on-site activity” in universities in the coming semester.
A beautiful wish; probably one shared by every student in the country. But should Mr Harris be making such grandiose claims? In the same week that University of Limerick, NUI Galway, and Maynooth have all thrown in the towel and begun to put in place measures for the continuation of online learning for the rest of this academic year, is it irresponsible, even dangerous to even suggest that the coming semester could differ greatly in format from its antecedent?
“Students need to be provided with the necessary information to allow them to make informed decisions about where and how they will live, come January.”
As the new Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris has spent the best part of his autumn being grilled on his failings to provide students with clear, detailed plans for the outlook of the current college semester. His request, expressed in an interview with the Irish Times, that universities await the conclusion of government talks before making decisions on reopening, seems even more ridiculous, more out of touch than many of his pronouncements over the course of the summer. Because while he is fulfilling his desired role as the all-round good guy by at least entertaining these ideas, such haphazard, uncoordinated announcements have real, material consequences for thousands of students around the country, many of whom have already suffered greatly at the hands of this government’s indecisiveness.
Harris’ specific desire to prioritise first and final year students in any adjustments to the current modus operandi are welcomed by both groups, with the social costs of online lectures significantly exacerbated when starting or ending college. And perhaps there are adjustments which could be attempted to afford these groups more opportunities to engage with the wider college community, perhaps putting in place facilities for small scale socialising or attempting to ensure face-to-face graduations. But whatever approach is adopted, students need to be provided now with the necessary information to allow them to make informed decisions about where and how they will live, come January. Unfortunately, irrespective of how the coming months pan out, the government will be unable to make anything but unstable predictions as to the situation we will find ourselves in with respect to the virus after Christmas, and thus any plans which rest on such predictions will be as unreliable, as doomed for failure, as they were in August. Playing the long game, holding out until the last minute to make decisions will just mean another period of tension and uneasiness for countless students across the country, a situation which both the government and colleges should be working relentlessly to avoid.
“Online learning has not been perfect by any stretch of the term, but many of the issues which have arisen in its implementation directly result from the fact that colleges ploughed ahead with their plans to reopen until the last moment.”
What this virus has demonstrated throughout the course of this year is that unfortunately, our wants, desires, wishes or hopes, will always play second fiddle to the dictates of the virus. “Facts don’t care about your feelings,” as we are so often reminded. It is only when we forget, or ignore, this simple mantra that the virus is able to gain a foothold and we are forced to take drastic measures to curtail its spread. We may have wanted the pubs and restaurants to open earlier this summer, but it inevitably led to a surge in cases, and the dreaded R rate quickly popping its head up above one. The government may have wanted to ignore the advice of NPHET when they recommended an immediate Level 5 lockdown, but all that this moment of science-denial achieved was a longer, stricter lockdown and a radical exacerbation of the countless economic and mental-health concerns which had seemed so important when ignoring the initial advice.
Now, this is not to say that we should bow down to the virus and allow it to impose its despotic rule on us unchecked. But we must choose our battles, and choose them wisely. Face-to-face lectures in the midst of a pandemic pose, in the vast majority of cases, a myriad of unnecessary risks, which could be very easily avoided by continuing with the current model of online learning. Online learning has not been perfect by any stretch of the term, but many of the issues which have arisen in its implementation directly result from the fact that colleges ploughed ahead with their plans to reopen until the last moment. In doing so, they failed to provide professors with any real assistance in preparing and developing online teaching methods. Rather than spending the coming months engaging in complex thought experiments pertaining to how many students can sit in a classroom if an easterly wind blows at 2km/h, colleges should be assessing, improving, and enhancing online teaching, ensuring both students and professors can make the most of a bad, but consistently improving, situation.
“We will still be ‘Living with Covid’ for most of the remainder of the college year, and so it is impossible to say with any certainty whether or not classes will be able to take place in person.”
Everybody’s favourite pharmaceutical company Pfizer has emerged with the oh-so-needed light at the end of this strange, meandering tunnel. Hope can slowly make its way back into our conversations. Dates for holidays can be discussed, rendezvous can be arranged, life can slowly shed its veneer of doom and gloom. Slowly. We are not out of the woods just yet. The joy and jubilation that came with the announcement of the vaccine will in no way alter the epidemiological nature of the virus. Likewise, neither the Time Square Ball Drop nor the onset of Hilary Term will reduce the potential damage which this virus can inflict on society. We will still be “Living with Covid” for most of the remainder of the college year, and so it is impossible to say with any certainty whether or not classes will be able to take place in person. For the sake of student sanity, College should follow the lead set by other institutions in recent weeks and commit to continuing with online lectures for the remainder of the year and provide some element of certainty in these still uncertain times.