Students shouldn’t have to bear the burden of the pandemic

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’After three semesters of online teaching, we are aware of the feeling of

’After three semesters of online teaching, we are aware of the feeling of fatigue,’ says Hermann Lehner, head of Academic Services at ETH. (Image: ETH Zurich)

After three semesters of online teaching, it’s time for students to get back to ETH, says Hermann Lehner, Head of Academic Services at ETH Zurich. He hopes that the Federal Council’s further decisions will enable face-to-face teaching at universities.

Mr Lehner, the Rector has written to students telling them to expect face-to-face teaching for the autumn semester. Students will doubtless be relieved. However, they have been told it will be a new kind of "face-to-face". What exactly does this mean?
After three semesters of online teaching, we are doing all we can to reintroduce face-to-face attendance for the autumn semester as a matter of principle. Active learning, exercises and experimental teaching in particular should take place on campus. We are planning for normal attendance densities in this regard. Having said that, we also want to maintain and even expand on innovative online forms of teaching. So we are not going back to face-to-face teaching as we knew it before the outbreak of the pandemic.

Are the requirements for face-to-face teaching currently being met?
The Federal Council’s current requirements allow for a return to face-to-face attendance provided that universities have a safety concept and social distancing is observed wherever possible. We assume that the Federal Council will not impose any general attendance restrictions on universities for the autumn semester. This will give us the freedom we need to develop a safety concept that allows meaningful face-to-face teaching.

However, we are currently seeing rising infection rates, in particular among young people...
This increase is also concerning for us, but our students have shown in the past year that they can deal responsibly with the difficult situation. Social responsibility also includes vaccination, and I think students are aware of this. The Rector has also explicitly pointed this out to them in a letter.

Do you know how many students have been vaccinated?
We’ll never know this exactly, as we are not allowed to record these figures for data protection reasons. We assume, however, that vaccination uptake is generally high at ETH. But vaccination is only one of the aspects that can help. Mask requirements are of course still an option. The university also provides an internal testing programme for ETH members who have not been vaccinated. Other elements include technical measures such as ventilation concepts and plexiglass partitions. It’s important for us to be able to consider the situation in each individual room, and not to have to observe rigid attendance figures.

What will happen if the Federal Council imposes attendance restrictions that make it impossible to hold classes in this form in the autumn semester?
Naturally, we are also preparing for this situation. But the consequence would be that students would be able to spend less time on campus. After three semesters of online teaching, we are aware of the feeling of fatigue. It’s essential for universities throughout Switzerland that a new normality returns, as it is in other areas of life.

Roland Baumann

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