Analysis: Looking back on a year of firsts

A review of the difficult and unpredictable academic year of 2020/21

On September 7, the highest Leaving Certificate results on record were announced after predicted grades with points rising nearly 75% for some Central Applications Office (CAO) courses. Students at the beginning of the year expected College to take place at least partially in-person. As international students begin arriving in the country, there is outrage in Trinity as it is discovered that some international students isolating in College accommodation would be charged over €350 for meal plans. 

On September 10, College announced a new Covid-testing facility as one measure which would facilitate on-campus learning. Teaching Assistants were initially told they would need to clean their classrooms between tutorials, but College quickly rolls back on this after opposition from staff. The CAO chairman Pól Ó Dochartaigh encouraged students on September 12 to not return home on the weekends in the hopes of preventing Covid-19 spread. 

There was confusion as timetables were released one week before orientation began, with some students being scheduled to have in-person classes on online classes back-to-back. College erected marquees on campus as spaces for students to study, and attend online classes if necessary. 

Tuesday, September 15, government announced its five level plan. The guidance under the plan for higher education institutions is “consider enhanced protective measures”, a vague instruction which concerns student and university representatives. With Covid-19 cases rising, Dublin anticipated being raised to Level 3. At Level 3 in the roadmap, universities were told to stay open but escalate protective measures and limit congregation. 

On Friday September 18, days before College was meant to resume, the Taoiseach announced that Dublin was to be raised to Level 3. Trinity made a conservative interpretation of the Level 3 guidance at the time, after being asked by the Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris to go further than suggested guidelines and minimise all in-person teaching. The provost sent out an email that same evening announcing any teaching that could happen online would take place online for the three weeks Dublin was expected to be at Level 3. The following week Minister Harris asked all higher education institutions to temporarily move online regardless of their counties’ Covid-19 levels, a move from which meant they would not return. 

In the first week of October in anticipation of the entire country being moved to Level 5, the provost announced that teaching restrictions in Trinity would be the same in Level 5 as they were in Level 3. This announcement confirmed the College shut down as much as was possible at Level 3. The main changes were the closing of the Sports Centre except to elite athletes, and the shortening of Library hours. By October 7, the Union of Students Ireland (USI) expressed concern for the uncertainty students were facing, with no clear answer about the future of online teaching in universities. On October 15, the Taoiseach announced the country’s move to Level 5 but made no mention of higher level education, which was the beginning of a theme. 

Universities never returned in the 2020/21 academic year, despite students being repeatedly promised throughout the year that they would get some level of in-person learning. International students had moved countries in the midst of a pandemic to attend university, renters found themselves trapped in a continuous cycle in the first semester of the academic year, constantly expecting to need to be on campus just a few weeks in the future. However, the unpredictability of Covid-19 alongside the refusal of government and College to admit they were moving entirely online for the year kept students hopeful. 

On November 9, concerns about growing student disengagement became evident with Simon Harris publicly encouraging colleges to increase in-person teaching in the new year in an effort to decrease drop-out rates. Similarly, that month the provost promised students could expect more on-campus activities in the next semester even if Level 5 restrictions continued. Evidently, this was not a promise the minister or the provost were in positions to make. On December 22, after a sharp increase in cases in a matter of weeks when Covid-19 restrictions were relaxed to facilitate Christmas shopping, the Taoiseach announced that higher education institutions were to remain online until 21 January 2021. On January 8, the provost announced that Hilary Term would be held primarily online. Some students had once again returned to Dublin in the expectation of in-person teaching. Students in Trinity accommodation who left before March were to be entitled to refunds. 

In January, Trinity announced mitigation measures for the Michaelmas assessment period, with students able to defer essays and exams until May. In February, with the country still in Level 5, College announced that while exams in Trinity term would take place online, there would be no similar mitigation measures for them. After backlash from the student body, the College announced a reversal the next day that, confirming there would be mitigation measures in place and the Senior Lecturer and Dean of Undergraduate Studies apologised for “the confusion and for any stress caused”. 

By the second semester of university in lockdown, with many students still in accommodation, tensions between students and accommodation management grew. In October, Kavanagh Court had closed all communal spaces in response to student parties and gatherings. Similar tensions began to emerge in Trinity Hall (Halls) in January, with a meeting of TCD Renter’s Union revealing Halls students felt “terrorised” by assistant wardens enforcing restrictions. 

At the beginning of February a Covid-19 outbreak in Goldsmith Hall prompted mass testing for all residents. Poor communication from College on the outbreak and testing process led to confusion and stress, with some students missing their testing appointments. Mass testing among Irish students generally grew more common in the second semester of the year, with an outbreak at University of Limerick (UL) at the end of that same month. UL made national headlines in March, with footage of a large party near campus going viral. 

While reports of student gatherings led to scapegoating from some quarters, it is important to note that many students were essential workers this year. This includes those working in retail as well as the important frontline work done by students on clinical placements. 

Public conversation grew this year about the fact student nurses and midwives were working on the frontline while not being paid. On December 3, government voted against paying student nurses and midwives. In mid-January,  the government announced that students nurses and midwives were to be pulled from their clinical placements so that senior nurses could focus on rising Covid-19 cases instead of teaching. TCDSU called on the minister for Health to treat students on placements better. In March there was outrage after 39 Trinity students were passed over for vaccination in the Coombe on the night relatives of staff were vaccinated at the hospital. 

While it has been a difficult year, it is important to note the successes we have seen. Trinity became a university of sanctuary this year. In the second semester Trinity also saw elections for provost and TCDSU take place online, with voting and following the campaign made incredibly accessible. A record number of students registered to vote in this year’s TCDSU elections. After an election run of all-female contestants, Trinity elected its first female provost in its 429 year history, Professor Linda Doyle. 

The vaccination roll-out continues in Ireland and is expected to increase dramatically in the summer. Despite dissatisfaction with the pace of the roll-out, it is worthwhile remembering that at the start of this year there was no guarantee that a vaccine would be created at all, let alone so quickly. Further, the introduction of rapid testing for Covid-19 could potentially allow College to return next year even if restrictions remain in place. Overall, there is some hope for a return in September, and if things go well there might even be a Trinity Ball next year. 

Kate Glen

Kate Glen is a News Analysis Editor for Trinity News. She is a Senior Sophister History and Political Science student.