Yesterday at 13 o’clock the VUB hosted a livestream in light of the imminent switch to code red on the 26th of October. The livestream, lasting half an hour, was meant to communicate new measures that will come into effect next Monday. With a moderator keeping an eye on online questions and delegating the floor to those present, vice rector Jan Danckaert led the information session and the answering of most questions.
Text: Filip Lismont
Images: Moeial archive, Marit Galle
Nearly all info was communicated in both Dutch and English, and answers often relayed focus to the upcoming provisions for first year students and international students, many of whom are especially isolated throughout the COVID crisis. Students tuned in and took the opportunity to ask questions in the comments, the substance of these questions ranging from exam protocols to the fact that most VUB students had to hear about the switch to code red in the news rather than from the VUB. There was not enough time to answer all questions, but it was regrettably noticeable that the more critical questions were not engaged with.
How long will code red be in effect? And what does this mean for classes?
The most impactive changes were communicated first, as vice rector Jan Danckaert confirmed that the VUB will remain in code red until the end of the first semester, meaning that any changes to safety protocol will only come following the January exam period. This implies that nearly all classes will shift to online platforms, with exceptions for first year bachelor students and courses where physical classes are essential in achieving the set learning goals. For students in the first year of their bachelor, WPO’s (seminars, practical work, physical exercises) will still continue with physical attendance possible, while all lectures will be held exclusively online. Further exceptions to online learning are courses where physical infrastructure or equipment is needed, or when set learning goals require physical attendance.
Ensuring that professors are reachable was also a key point. Teachers are encouraged to adhere to class schedules and be as available for students online as they would be in normal times. Digital learning platforms are not always easy to facilitate, and there are countless cases of students reporting technical issues that affect learning capacity. The VUB has had to be reflexive in ensuring that teachers and students know how to work with digital class settings, and that all involved are not too hindered by the new online learning environment. While the difficulty of digital teaching remains, the VUB has now had more than half a year to develop a strategy or protocol ensuring more consistency in online teaching methods. Up till now however, no cohesive plan or protocol has been announced to secure this consistency, and any questions on the topic were not addressed by the moderator or panel.
The upcoming January exam period will take place under the same approach as the previous exam periods in August and July. Although this was not further specified, despite some questions on the topic, this most likely implies that exams will be held online unless a physical exam can take place in a corona proof setting. Professors will again be able to construct exam formats and questions by their own prerogative. The study week that normally falls right before the January exams has also been removed. That week will now be available for exam sessions in order to spread out the exams as much as possible, although professors are still advised against planning exams at this time.
There was a notable focus on international students and the efforts made to ensure that they are well received and sufficiently supported throughout their stay in Brussels. International students are still encouraged to come to Brussels throughout their engagement with the VUB, with several initiatives meant to ensure they can still enjoy their time in Belgium regardless of the health crisis. The bulk of these initiatives will be announced shortly, with buddy systems already in place. This system is not exclusive to international students, as first years can also be assigned to a buddy.
Code red will have severe consequences for the energy of campus life, but certain facilities will stay open with altered safety guidelines. The VUB Restaurant and the sandwich bar next to opinio will stay available for take-away meals. The library will also remain open, with seats being available for reservations through the Affluences booking system, to be found on the website of the VUB library. Students are also welcome to continue living in their VUB dorms, either on campus or in the Schoofslaan and Nieuwenlaan dorm facilities. They are however explicitly asked to maintain the safety guidelines of washing hands, wearing masks, maintaining distance and limiting company to a total of 4 people (including yourself).
Lastly, but certainly not least, the issue of students’ mental health was addressed. But besides underlining its importance, there seemed to be no concrete measures to tackle the predictable rise in mental health issues among students. The issue of mental health is already prominent amongst students, and student psychologists remain heavily booked and hard to reach, guidance counsellors are swamped with emails and sometimes take weeks to reply. Besides the buddy system, social contact has been brutally reduced. It is hence yet to be seen whether the university can manifest their proclaimed support for troubled students into action.