Auckland university students told to return to class on Monday

Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 16 Sep 2020, 12:20PM
Auckland University students are required back in face-to-face classes from Monday.

Auckland university students told to return to class on Monday

Newstalk ZB / NZ Herald,
Publish Date
Wed, 16 Sep 2020, 12:20PM

Thousands of university students have voiced concerns at the lack of social distancing provisions and non-mandatory masks as they prepare to return to lectures next week.

Auckland University students are required back in face-to-face classes from Monday but many want to stick with online learning until the university can uphold social distancing requirements to protect against Covid-19.

The call to return to class comes in the same week that 89 users of an Auckland gym visited by someone infected with Covid-19 are being asked to get tested.

The infected person attended three classes at the Les Mills gym in Takapuna last week.

In August a student at the University of Auckland tested positive for Covid-19.

This week students flooded the email inbox of vice-chancellor Dawn Freshwater and signed a petition requesting all learning apart from practical work remained online.

However the university says safety remains its priority and mask-wearing is "strongly encouraged" where physical distancing is not possible.

One student, who wished to remain anonymous, said the university was "actively ignoring concerns of students" and said they were being required back on campus with "no support".

The fifth-year law and art student said the university handled the first lockdown well and students were well supported and communicated to.

"Since August however the University of Auckland's response has been lacklustre at best, negligent at worst," the student said.

"Updates have been few and far between, telling students to suck up the move back online when the second lockdown has been far tougher mentally."

The student said after Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Cabinet would review Auckland's settings on September 21 the university delivered a final "kick in the guts".

"Vice-chancellor Freshwater announced that students would be going back to university," the student said.

"There is no requirement to wear masks, there is no support for students, there is no guarantee of physical distancing."

Other students echoed concerns, saying there was a limit of 10 on social gatherings and no more than 50 at a funeral but it was okay to "put 300 in a lecture hall with no mandatory masks".

More than 80 students contacted NZME with their concerns, saying they were "appalled", "stressed out", and thought the decision was "insane" "ridiculous", and "unsafe".

Many wanted to wait until there was no community transmission and felt like they were being treated as a customer instead of a student.

Third-year engineering student Bayley Dropich said it was "ridiculous".

"Family members of mine are classified as 'at risk' so if they were to catch Covid second–hand from me this would obviously be devastating."

Dropich questioned why gatherings throughout the city were limited to 10, but classes would be allowed to be "crammed into a lecture hall" where not everyone knows each other. He was concerned the university "could potentially spark the next Covid wildfire".

One student, who worked in a Halls of Residence, said while physical distancing might work on paper, it had "gone out the window" very quickly in the halls. He could not see it being any different on campus.

"A lot of students want to stay home and have a right to safety.

"The university should not be breaching that right to safety for profit … where's the pastoral care here? Where is the wellbeing?"

Other students were looking forward to getting back to classes.

Second year commerce student Fiona Bygrave said not all students were stressed about returning to class next week.

"The online assessments are just not of the same standard or quality of what we can get on campus," she said.

Students also said the limited free counselling services were always booked and there was little other support.

Another petition, also signed by thousands, requested another grade bump, like the 5 per cent given after the first lockdown to acknowledge the hardship students faced.

Freshwater responded to student feedback today by email and said there had been consultation with the Auckland University Students' Association (Ausa) and "heard loud and clear from students that they value the on-campus experience."

Freshwater said students told her they found it hard to stay motivated and engaged via online learning, didn't want to miss practical work and missed university life, being with their friends and the social aspects of the on-campus experience.

She said the University was closely following all Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education guidelines in relation to how they operated at each alert level.

"Our priority is to support a safe return to campus for students and staff, with all appropriate health and safety measures in place."

Despite there being no limit to class size the university chose to limit in-person class sizes to under 300 with larger classes going online.

Physical distancing was "doable" with classes under 300, the university said.

Freshwater said this would help with physical distancing for those needed on campus.

She confirmed masks were not mandatory but said mask-wearing on campus was "strongly encouraged in situations where physical distancing is not possible."

What students want

• Online learning except when necessary to be a face-to-face

• Scrapping fees to apply for aegrotat grades and open recognition of the effect of Covid-19

• Mandatory masks

• Ability to maintain physical distancing

Students posting to social media had a variety of opinions on the return to classes, with some such as science and engineering students wanting to go back because of the practical nature of their learning.

In contrast, many law, arts and commerce students preferred to stay home.

Students pointed to other institutions such as AUT and Massey University that adopted mixed learning with necessary classes held in person but the majority of classes going back online.