Jess Casey: What is a college campus without its students?

On the last Friday in September, UL, like all third-level institutions, was directed to limit the majority of face-to-face teaching it had planned, with just essential classes to be held on-site
Jess Casey: What is a college campus without its students?

University of Limerick during Level 3. Pictre: Brian Arthur

What does a university campus sound like without its 17,000 students?

Well, apart from a student rolling the odd suitcase through otherwise deserted courtyards on their way to the bus stop, it’s pretty silent.

I headed out to the University of Limerick (UL), my own alma mater, to see what a college campus looks like under the current Covid restrictions.

On the last Friday in September, UL, like all third-level institutions, was directed to limit the majority of face-to-face teaching it had planned, with just essential classes to be held on-site.

The last-minute announcement came too late for the students who had already committed to accommodation for the semester, although they were urged not to travel, and scuppered freshers week plans.

University of Limerick during Level 3. Picture: Brian Arthur
University of Limerick during Level 3. Picture: Brian Arthur

While restrictions are technically still set for renewal on October 27, now it's looking increasingly more and more likely that the majority of teaching will stay online for the remainder of the term for thousands of students across the country.

On the UL campus, the first thing I am hit with is just how empty it is. 

I’d just traveled from Limerick city, under the same Level 3 restrictions, but the streets there were still busy, with people milling around.

Out of more than 20 places where you can usually grab a bite to eat on the entire 400-acre campus, just one remains open where you can sit down: the Stables.

The student bar, in operation for well over 30 years, is well-known for its open courtyard, where even on a bad night pre-Covid, hundreds of students could usually jam themselves in.

Now, it's sectioned off, and limited to just 15 people. 

There’s a strict one-way system to get in and out, you leave a number for contact tracing at the door before placing your order and sanitise your hands.

We encounter our first issue of the day when we go to take our coffees outside and get pelted by horizontal hailstones.

Under level three restrictions, students were encouraged to remain at home, with the vast majority of classes and lecturers to be carried out online.

Some small tutorials, as well as some of the planned first-year induction activities, that couldn't take place online have been carried out on campuses. However, these have been limited.

University of Limerick's library. Picture: Brian Arthur
University of Limerick's library. Picture: Brian Arthur

Libraries remain open but with strict procedures in place to limit any congregation.

At UL, this means thousands of study spaces have been reduced down to just 200, with students required to book a slot online.

Restrictions on how college will operate are likely to be renewed on October 27.

That being said, there is a growing consensus that we may see stricter restrictions introduced for the entire country sooner given the growing number of daily cases.

At third-level, there’s growing calls for certainty. Last week, the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) called for a decision on whether or not education will remain remote until the New Year.

It said last-minute decisions and temporary two to three-week measures were offering no reassurance to students or staff.

Its position on the matter followed consultation with students, and after considering Covid-19 outbreaks among students in the UK.

However, the USI has also called for serious supports to be put in place for students, including designated spaces across campuses where students can attend synchronous lectures, and access food and drink.

Supports also need to be put in place so that students who signed leases for the semester don’t miss out and the Government needs to intervene in the private sector providers to ensure refunds are offered to students affected, it believes.

Signage at the library of University of Limerick (UL). Picture: Brian Arthur
Signage at the library of University of Limerick (UL). Picture: Brian Arthur

In recent days, NUI Galway, UCD, and UCC have announced plans to stay online until next semester. It's expected more will follow suit.

UCC has also confirmed that several cases of Covid-19 have been confirmed amongst students in university-run campus accommodation.

Back on the UL campus, one staff member I met told me, from a social-distance, that the students he's encountered have been the best about social distancing and wearing masks by far.

“You don’t need to tell them twice,” he said.

But they also need some sort of social outlet, he adds. 

“Set up some benches out in the open across from the main buildings, let them have a few socially-distanced drinks, sit and talk. Something to look forward to so they don’t go mad.”

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