NUI Galway students express outrage over lack of social distancing in exam centres

The university commenced in-person exams today, despite pleas from NUIG Students’ Union for exams to be moved online

National University of Ireland Galway (NUI Galway) has been heavily criticised by students following the lack of health precautions implemented at the return of in-person exams which began today, December 6. 

Videos of the exam venues which emerged on social media today showed a lack of social distancing in centres which appeared to be operating at near full capacity. 

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, exams had been online for the last eighteen months. 

National University of Ireland Galway Students’ Union (NUIGSU) had repeatedly called for exams to be moved online due to rising Covid-19 cases. 

In advance of in-person exams, RTE reported that NUI Galway students would have “at least about 1.5 metres apart from each other”. The university claimed that their plans for in-person exams were consistent with public health advice. 

Emails sent to NUI Galway students this afternoon seen by Trinity News claimed that exam venues would be operating at reduced capacity with ventilation, a one way system for entering and exiting, hand sanitisers available at all entrance points, and the university’s cleaning protocol in place. 

This claim has been disputed by student testimonies and videos emerging from inside exam venues.

Videos reposted on social media of the exam centres showed desks directly beside each other, with an empty lane of seats in front of each desk.

Sixteen locations, both on and off NUI Galway campus, were used for exams. 

Speaking to Trinity News, one final year Bachelor of Arts student who sat an exam today, said that social distancing was absent both inside the exam hall, and while queuing to gain access to the premises.

“We were told the exam centre would be open early so there wouldn’t be any groups outside, but I was there early. I was there at nine o’clock, and from then on it started as a big group outside.” 

“There were only two doors in” they continued. “There was no social distancing and only one hand sanitiser station.” 

“A lot of people walking in around the group had no mask on, or around their nose. Some invigilators were not wearing them properly, and one of them was even in a visor.” When sitting down for the exam, there was “one person beside [them], and one person behind [them]”. 

“They were close enough that if I were to stretch out both of my hands I could touch the two of them.” 

Speaking to Trinity News, Róisín Nic Lochlainn, NUIGSU President said that “students were already experiencing extreme anxiety about going into exam halls with the new variant”. 

She said that there were reports of “every seat being filled, no social distancing,” and “incorrect mask wearing”.

“There was no one way system” for students leaving the premises after the exam. 

“We can’t have graduation because it isn’t safe to do so, [NUI Galway] had a virtual night to light the university Christmas tree because it isn’t safe to attend in person…yet students are being forced into these exam halls.”

She noted that “this time last year we had half the [Covid] cases, and exams were online”.

She believes that “the state of the exam halls today show complete reckless disregard for students and their families’ welfare”.

Nic Lochlainn stated that there were 391 out of 400 students in the exam centre in Leisureland Galway today, and there were reports of “two students who tested positive” earlier today.  

She continued to say that “there are students who have avoided large lectures, have avoided nightclubs, and now they’re being forced into exam halls”. 

Nic Lochlainn said that NUI Galway had promised that exams would be operating with between 40 and 60% capacity, and that all the seats in the venue wouldn’t be used. 

An email sent to the school of science and engineering by a student seen by Trinity News read: “Many invigilators were not wearing face masks but face shields which we all know from research is ineffective at reducing the spread of virus particles.”

The email went on to say: “There was no social distancing in place,” and that the student “had no empty seats surrounding [them] which was contradictory to what we were told by the college in the lead up [to exams]”.

Trinity has said that in-person exams are to commence for the upcoming Michaelmas exam period, both in the RDS, and the Exam Hall. The Graduate Students’ Union (GSU) has been strongly critical of this decision.  

Today on Twitter GSU President, Gisele Scanlon wrote: “Yesterday we delivered 5000+ student signatures last week to Minister Harris to prevent this. To the NUIGSU students who signed the open letter for protection, Colleges insisting on in-person exams in crowded exam halls is unnecessary and we should not take any unnecessary risks.” 

Both the GSU and Students4Change, a small activist group on campus, have called on College to cancel all in-person assessments due to Covid-19. 

In-person exam conditions have also been criticised by opposition politicians. Senator Annie Hoey published a video today on social media saying she had called on Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris to issue “instructions to institutions about moving exams online a number of weeks ago”, noting that “some colleges have done this, and some have not”. 

Hoey continued to say that she had been contacted by students sitting exams in halls that were at “full capacity,” causing them to feel “very unsafe”.

“Safety and Covid-19 should not be a lottery for students.”

Grace Gageby

Grace Gageby is the current Assistant Editor of Trinity News. She studies English and Philosophy and was previously Deputy Comment Editor.