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While Denmark is reopening slowly, students at the country's higher education institutions still do not know when campuses will open again. »They have almost been forgotten in the public debate,« says interest group Universities Denmark. Virologist does not expect Danish universities back to normal until after the summer holidays.
Selected parts of the Danish education system opened 8 March. The Danish folk high schools and continuation schools are opening, primary schools up to 4th grade are already open, and students from the 5th to 8th grade may attend outdoor classes once a week. Students close to graduating are allowed to take physical classes 50 per cent of the time in parts of the country (and excluding Copenhagen, where it is only one day a week).
The youngest children in primary schools returned to classrooms already on 8 February.
In the meantime, higher education degree programmes, including the University of Copenhagen, will remain closed.
The students face the realisation that they are not first in line for this, the second reopening in the pandemic. Yet they do not know when they can leave their screens in their dorm rooms and return to physical interactions on campus.
And this is disappointing for people at university:
»Of course I hoped that we would be able to get back on campus to some extent. We really need this, especially the many students who are struggling with stress and loneliness during the lockdown,« says Kevin Olesen, who is chairman of the Student Council at the University of Copenhagen.
Interest group Universities Denmark agrees.
»I think it’s a shame that we have not been taken into account. We can see that there are many students who are not happy with the situation they are in right now. And they have generally been overlooked in this debate,« says Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark.
The latest reopening comes in the wake of intensified debate about universities over the last few weeks.
The students need a bit of hope
Director of Universities Denmark, Jesper Langergaard
Recent studies show loneliness and distress among students, even to a higher degree than during the first lockdown. A study conducted by by the Djøf Students trade union section showed that two out of three students felt lonely.
The alarming data had two politicians Katarina Ammitzbøll and Ulla Tørnæs, Conservative and Liberal Party spokeswomen for education, request consultation in parliament with Minister for Higher Education and Science Ane Halsboe-Jørgensen. The spokeswomen asked the minister about how the Danish government would prevent widespread student distress, and they agreed that there is really only one cure for it:
»I think students want most of all is to return to campus, and as soon as possible. It would give them peace of mind to get a specific date, so that they can see light at the end of the tunnel,« said Ulla Tørnæs. Katarina Ammitzbøll agreed:
»It’s tough, academically and psychologically, to face this uncertainty.«
Universities Denmark have subsequently called for exactly what Katarina Ammitzbøll asked for several times during the consultation: A plan.
On the Altinget.dk media site, chairman of Danish Rectors’ Conference Anders Bjarklev called on politicians to see opportunities rather than restrictions, and presented a proposal for universities’ reopening in three controlled phases.
In the first phase, students will be able to meet at the university in reading and project groups and study in reading rooms.
In the second phase, it should be possible to hold teaching for small classes, and to hold academic events and meetings in large rooms.
And in a third phase, one step before a full reopening, teaching in larger classes and lectures should return, and common areas on campus should be reopened.
The lockdown hits the weakest hardest
Kevin Olesen, chairman of the Student Council
Jesper Langergaard, director of Universities Denmark, justifies their proposal with the fact that despair is more and more prevalent among students.
»We do not want to break health authorities’ guidelines. I just think it’s important to get started with the smaller initiatives and then build on them when it’s possible. Students have soon been stuck at home in front of their screens for a year now, and their motivation is almost completely nil.«
Jesper Langergaard says that a continued shutdown can have serious consequences for the students at universities in Denmark. Not least those students who were admitted in 2020 or 2019, and who have therefore spent much of their degree programme behind the screen.
He fears that this will result in increased dropout rates in the wake of the crisis.
»Many students start off on the wrong foot with their degree programme because they lack the physical and social activities that are closely linked to the more academic aspects. It can therefore really cause problems in the longer term, if you do not start taking students’ hardships seriously,« says Jesper Langergaard.
Kevin Olesen of the Student Council agrees that there is not enough focus on the long-term social and academic consequences of the lockdown. As chairman, he is often in contact with students who are slowly being crushed by the weight of their isolation.
»I have seen students drop out, and have heard of even more people who are thinking about doing it. We see it mostly among that part of the student population that is the weakest. In this way, the lockdown is skewed and hits some harder than others,« he says.
In line with the reopening plan for Universities Denmark, he calls on politicians to open study spaces on campus, for example for students with functional impairments, for those writing their theses, and for the really vulnerable.
As professor and virologist at the University of Copenhagen, Allan Randrup Thomsen wants universities to reopen soon.
But he says that it is difficult to find the space for higher education in a reopening plan where politicians want to prioritise, say, primary and secondary schools, and liberal professions.
»It is a question of where there is a scope for action, in relation to where we are going with the epidemic. How much can we allow ourselves to open up without helping to set off a third wave?« says Allan Randrup Thomsen.
»I would be careful not to make more space for more than we are doing already. Especially because we’ve soon vaccinated a much larger proportion of the vulnerable. Why push on too much now?«
Allan Randrup Thomsen reckons that universities will only experience conditions that are close to normal after the summer holidays. This, however, he is certain of.
But how much can be opened before then depends on the effect of the spring, he says.
»I would be careful not to make more space for more than we are doing already.
Allan Randrup Thomsen, virologist and professor, UCPH
»The increase in temperature is a very large and unknown player. We only have one year’s experience with this virus, and we cannot say whether what we saw last year was representative of what is going on. And is the B117 variant just as sensitive in this context? This is one of the critical parameters, along with the vaccine roll-out.«
The universities play host to experts who are currently assessing the health risks of reopening, and often on prime time television – people like Allan Randrup Thomsen. For this reason, Jesper Langergaard is careful not to make loud calls for the need for universities to jump the queue.
He knows that a large-scale reopening of universities is unrealistic at the time of writing. But he hopes for more debate in the Danish parliament on which small steps you can take to get students back on campus — without risking the management of infections.
»I would like this debate to take place politically. We want to start gradually bringing in students. They need a bit of hope,« says Jesper Langergaard.
Maybe hope is on the way. The Danish government has started negotiating with other political parties on a wider reopening plan, which is expected to be released on 23 March.
Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen has said in this connection that the government will prioritise children and young people. The extent to which this also applies to students in higher education institutions is still uncertain.