Educational Activities During the Second Semester: Rector Ghent University Answers Most Important Questions

(08-12-2020) The Flemish government has – together with the rectors of all Flemish universities and based in part on the advice of a great many scientists/experts – decided that the educational activities of the second semester will start in code red.

Nederlandse versie staat hier.

More information regarding the educational activities at Ghent University during the second semester is available here.

I have received some questions. I gave some answers. I’d like to share them with you.

Yesterday, we knew today was going to be a difficult day. Because, yesterday, we knew that today all Ghent University students and employees were going to be notified about the way our second semester educational activities were going to be organized. Because we were going announce the continuation of code red and because this was exactly the kind of news nobody was looking forward to. Not the students, not the teachers, not the many employees, not you, not me. So why code red? Because we have no other choice.

corona studentenI haven’t received a single “Hooray!” in my inbox these past few hours. Of course not. I’ve received reactions that can be summarized as follows: “it’s a pain, but we have no other choice. The right decision is rarely the easy one.” I also received many questions. Some questions (and I hope their answers too 😊) can provide valuable context to all Ghent University students and employees. So, I want to share them with you.

Does Ghent University, once again, have to be the first to announce code red?

In the past, we have been the first or one of the first to make a decision a number of times. I think I am not exaggerating when I say that this has turned out to be the right decision every single time. For example, when we decided on 26/10 to organize our educational activities in code red, there was much disappointment. The entire management and I understood this. We made this decision on 14/10, based on the uniform advice of our scientists/experts; and we were indeed the only ones. But… on 28/10 the Flemish government had to take drastic corona measures and on 30/10 the Consultation Committee did the same: ‘code dark red’ came into effect that same evening. Since we had taken our decision sooner, a sudden – literally overnight – switch to code (dark) red was avoided at our university; our teachers and employees had been given more time to prepare. It wasn’t welcome news for anyone, but it was the right decision to make. Likewise, it is not me or the ‘Ghent University management’ that deserves the credit for it, but rather those with whom we consulted and who made the recommendations on which our decisions were based.

The decision that was made public today was not a decision that Ghent University was the first to make. It was made by all the Flemish universities, Flemish university colleges and the Flemish government together. Once again, based on the advice of scientists/experts, working at all Flemish universities. Uniform advice. Advice based on science and facts. Advice that was motivated by the wish to not endanger the health of students, employees, their family and others close to them. Advice that was also motivated by the wish to take into account the mental wellbeing of students and employees as much as possible. Advice that… won’t prompt any “Hoorays”, no. But when scientists/experts present you with uniform advice, it would – especially as a university – be reckless and irresponsible to ignore it.

So, we have followed the advice and we have done so together: universities, university colleges and the government.

Was it necessary to communicate this now (already)?

Unfortunately, there is no ideal timing for a message the like of which you received this morning, due to the simple reason that nobody likes receiving such a message. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever. And, yet, still this message had to be conveyed. The government, universities and university colleges decided last Saturday to start the second semester in code red. We agreed that we would communicate this together. There were several reasons for this. First of all, we wanted to notify our students and employees as quickly as possible of the decisions that had been made. I will continue to pursue this line with regards to decisions made by the government (Consultation Committee, formerly the National Security Council) and I will, of course, also continue to pursue this line with regards to decisions that affect higher education specifically.

Moreover, it would have been quite obviously ill-advised to send the message you received today during the pre-exam study period/Christmas holidays or during the exams. Sending the message after the exams was not an option either: we wanted to make sure that all lecturers and employees involved in our educational activities were notified on time, so that they could adequately prepare for them. Communicating after the exams would have made this impossible.

Some other institutions of higher education have chosen to implement code red until the end of February, while Ghent University will implement code red for a longer period. Why is Ghent University stricter than other institutions?

Ghent University is not stricter than other institutions. First of all, every institution of higher education will implement code red for at least four weeks of classes. Ghent University (and other institutions as well, most likely) will implement code red for the duration of six weeks. The difference will not be a month, but two weeks. And there’s more. The epidemiological situation will be reevaluated at the end of February. This will be done communally: the universities, university colleges and the Flemish government will do this together with scientists/experts. Based on the conclusions of the evaluation, a decision will be made on how educational activities will be organized during the remainder of the weeks of classes.

All sections of staff and students have asked us to keep the amount of drastic policy switches to a minimum. We were expressively asked not to switch time and time again; nobody likes being yo-yoed around. Everyone is tired of switching, which is perfectly understandable. We have to take this into account. This is why all institutions of higher education want to keep the amount of drastic policy switches to a minimum.

Some institutions of higher education will possibly have to make a first switch after four weeks of classes; Ghent University will possibly have to switch after six weeks of classes. Both options have pros and cons; neither option is ‘the right’ or ‘the wrong option’.

The most important reasons for our decision to organize the coming months in such a way that a possible policy switch can take place after six weeks of classes, are essentially the following: (i) we want to offer some stability and avoid, as much as possible, that people grow tired of these policy switches; (ii) we want to guaranty at least a week-and-a-half between the moment the decision to switch comes into effect and the moment the new security level comes into force – in the scenario wherein code red is only implemented for four weeks, this would mean that we would already have to decide after two-and-a-half weeks whether a switch is necessary, which is very soon; (iii) in case it would become clear that a switch to code orange is feasible and the right thing to do during the fifth or sixth week of class, we will be able to start working according to code orange in the seventh week of class – institutions that choose to work with blocks of four weeks of classes will, in that case, only be able to start working according to code orange during the ninth week of classes.

Ok, but shopping in crowded shopping streets is allowed. How come we can’t organize on-campus classes?

Well… most scientists/experts agree that it isn’t a good idea to go shopping in a crowded shopping street. They have expressed their concern about this on multiple occasions. That being said: the shopping that took place during the course of the last week was quite uneventful. Wherever it didn’t/doesn’t go well, measures were/are taken. This is as it should be and does not preclude us from organizing our educational activities as safely as possible, quite the contrary.

Compared to many other professions, institutions of higher education are granted a relatively large amount of freedom. Think of the cultural and event sector, of the hospitality industry, … quite a lot of people employed there have had a much worse time of it than we have. To start comparing the suffering of one to the suffering of another is a delicate exercise at best and will not bring us any peace, of this I am sure. But we cannot deny that, all things considered, the university is doing quite well while other sectors and industries simply haven’t even had the chance to try.

Is this not especially hard on our students?

Yes, this is especially hard on our students. It’s probably more difficult for them than it is for the employees of our university. At the same time, of course, I by no means wish to detract from the difficulties the corona crisis has caused our employees.

For this reason I, once again, want to call on everyone to help each other. I also want to call on everyone to make use of the support services available at our university. Many of us are ready to help colleagues and students in any way they can. Make use of these services if you need them. More information is available on our website ‘A work environment where people feel good in their skin’ (https://www.ugent.be/intranet/en/human-resources/health-safety/psychosocial-welfare).

Will reading these answers to your questions prompt a “Hooray!? I doubt it, nor do I expect it to. I do, however, hope that these answers have offered you some context.

We have to get through this together.