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Corona policy at the University: a continuous puzzle

With the new academic year just around the corner, many more students and lecturers will soon be coming to the University. What are we doing to keep our campus safe? We spoke to Martijn Ridderbos, Vice-Chairman of the Executive Board, about the new Campus Protocol, which enters into force on 31 August. ‘I understand all too well that people are fed up with working from home – but we have to make sure everyone is safe and well.’

Martijn Ridderbos, Vice-Chairman of the Executive Board: ‘The new Campus Protocol details the rules and regulations that will apply when we start again on 31 August.’
Martijn Ridderbos, Vice-Chairman of the Executive Board: ‘The new Campus Protocol details the rules and regulations that will apply when we start again on 31 August.’

What will change when the new academic year begins?

Martijn Ridderbos: ‘The crisis has lasted for months already: months of remote working, teaching and research. And although the crisis is not over yet, from the start of the new academic year, on 31 August, a bit more will be possible at least because we will be able to provide more in-person teaching. However, that means that the buildings will be busier. The new Campus Protocol details the rules and regulations that will apply when we start again on 31 August.’ 

What is the new Campus Protocol about?

‘In short, it’s about the question of when students and staff members can come to the University and which rules will apply. Students will soon be able to come to the University to study or for classes – as will their lecturers. But the protocol is also for people who work in research labs or libraries. It also provides guidelines on online study and remote working because some of our teaching will continue to be online, and working from home will continue to be the norm. 

‘We understand that people feel a huge need just to see each other face to face. Many staff members are fed up with the situation and are becoming frustrated that it is taking so long – particularly now it looks set to continue. We want to do what we can to help, to make sure that people are able to do their work properly and to enjoy it too. But at the same time we have to make sure that we are a safe and healthy organisation, for everyone who works or studies here. It’s a real conundrum.’

The Leiden University Campus Protocol
The Leiden University Campus Protocol

What kind of things do you, the Executive Board, have to take into account?

‘The issues that we as a university and thus as the Board are facing tend to be a bit of a balancing act. A balancing act between, for example, the desire to meet others face to face, as a team or research group, and protecting people’s safety. Or between wanting to act quickly to provide clarity and being meticulous when developing guidelines and plans. I think that everyone in the organisation will recognise that feeling, regardless of whether you work in a lab, want to go to lectures or are working from home. The corona situation is pulling us in all directions. The trick, particularly for us as we develop policy and guidelines, is not to choose extremes but to find a middle ground, and to clearly communicate what we have decided and why.

‘We’re trying to achieve this by coming up with custom solutions inasmuch as the rules allow for this. Each faculty, each expertise centre and each building is different, so for each one we are looking at the possibilities within the guidelines of the Netherlands National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM).’

What do you expect the coming months to be like at the University?

‘We know what it will be like for students, so what form the teaching will take and which rules they will have to obey. We already had protocols for researchers working at the University. The greatest uncertainty now is all the “other” work. Will the government continue to advise people to work from home? That’s what Prime Minister Rutte hinted at in the press conference on 18 August. We hope that the government’s advice on this will be clear by the end of August so that we can work out what it means for our university in September. We will obviously do this together with all the faculties and expertise centres. On the Executive Board we have agreed that we will introduce a new University policy on 1 October on how best to respond to the government advice to work from home where possible.  Then everyone will know where they are – on the proviso that things may change if there is a second wave.’

Looking back over the past months, what’s your overall feeling?

‘It may sound odd, but before this crisis I would sometimes wonder whether our organisation was flexible enough. Our internal decision-making is always meticulous, and we discuss everything with as many stakeholders as possible. That’s good of course but it’s not very fast. I’ve been known to grumble that less talking and more doing wouldn’t go amiss. Well, that has definitely happened over the past months! Our people, our students, lecturers, researchers, supporting staff: everyone has shown enormous flexibility. Moving our teaching online, doing remote research, adapting our buildings to comply with 1.5-metre distancing… It’s all been extra work, often on top of people’s regular hours. That’s something everyone should be really proud of. That we’ve tackled and achieved this together. 

‘But we do realise that there are limits. Our staff have worked their socks off up to the summer only to work through the summer to get everything ready for the new academic year. When what they needed was a well-earned holiday and a good rest. This is something that worries us. As do our students, whom we’ve also asked a lot of. That’s why we are training managers to keep an eye on things and make sure people aren’t overworked. We also have more study advisers and coaches for our students, and are working on more coaches for our staff. What should also help is that there will be more options for working or studying in our buildings, but we’ll continue to be extremely alert over the coming months.’

What is your message to students and staff for the coming months?

‘In these difficult times, and with all the extra work, please take good care of each other. Help each other if necessary and tell someone if you are struggling. And then if I might return to that balancing act. I would like to ask everyone to try to see things from both sides. We as the Board are aware of our staff and students’ concerns on the one hand and wishes on the other. And I hope that you will all understand that we must also strike a balance between, on the one hand, making it possible to work and study in our buildings and, on the other, following the rules and taking care of everyone’s health and safety.’ 

Text: Marieke Epping
Photos: Leiden University

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