“We would like to offer as much classroom teaching as possible in the fall semester”
On 19 June, the Federal Council communicated further relaxation steps. The situation is now classified as "special" and no longer as "extraordinary". For the University of Basel, these new federal guidelines form the perimeters within which it can now plan further steps. In an interview, President Andrea Schenker-Wicki explains how the University is preparing for the autumn semester and what challenges will have to be overcome in the coming months.
Ms Schenker-Wicki, why are the federal government's guidelines so important in preparing for the autumn semester?
Andrea Schenker-Wicki: We have set ourselves the goal of once again offering as many attendance classes as possible in the autumn semester and also protecting our lecturers and students as fully as possible. At the same time, it is important to us that lecturers and students can plan for the autumn semester early. We are currently in close contact with our specialists to work out the best possible solutions for the coming months. Since the general conditions are constantly changing, there are many things we cannot yet definitively determine. However, we expect to be able to provide more information in about two weeks.
Will we be able to return to the lecture halls in September?
I firmly believe that this will be possible - although not to for the full curriculum. We must assume that the threat from the corona virus will still be present in the autumn. The University of Basel is therefore planning for various scenarios. Where the rules of distancing and hygiene can be observed, face-to-face teaching will be possible. However, we must also assume that certain members of the university will have to stay at home - for example because they belong to a risk group, because they are in quarantine or because they have symptoms and are advised not to come to the university. For this reason, and in order to use the rooms optimally, we will probably offer mixed forms of classroom and online teaching.
The University of Basel is expecting almost two thousand new students in September - will they start with distance learning immediately?
This is exactly what we want to prevent! Wherever possible, the new students should be offered face-to-face teaching. This is a major priority for us. Many of these young people are coming to the university for the first time and do not know the university, some of them do not know the city and may not yet have been able to make contact with fellow students. After all, the university is a place of exchange, debate and social contact: you get to know a lot of people at the university! This is what we want to offer young people as much as possible - maybe not in every class, but from the very first day.
When will students find out what form their lecture or seminar will take in the autumn semester?
The Vice-President for Teaching is currently working intensively with the Deans of Studies and the central teams – IT, spatial distribution, educational technologies, etc. – on possible scenarios. We assume that the general conditions will be clarified in the next two weeks. It will then be a challenging task for the lecturers to define the appropriate format to be offerred and prepare appropriately during the summer.
Does the University of Basel have the necessary infrastructure and resources to offer parallel face-to-face and online teaching in autumn?
We are aware that this will be a very big challenge. Not only for the students and lecturers, but also for all our service units and the university administration: the demands on IT infrastructure and IT support are increasing rapidly. Room scheduling has to recalculate the capacities of all teaching rooms due to the distance rules, and the facilities have to ensure that the rooms are adequately ventilated and cleaned between lectures. The current situation requires the highest degree of flexibility from all parties involved. Nevertheless, I am confident that we will master this huge task together.
You expect a lot from the members of the university!
Yes, I expect a lot - but I am also incredibly proud of our students, lecturers, researchers and staff. Double and triple workloads have become a part of everyday life over the past months. Children and relatives have had to be looked after, and the restricted and difficult access to the research infrastructure cost our scientists a lot of time and nerves.
Our young researchers, in particular, are under significant pressure at this time: they should do research and publish, they are involved in teaching, and the digitalisation of teaching is a challenge - for many of them, demanding family obligations are added to the equation. We will do everything we can to ensure that our young researchers overcome the difficulties of these these times as well as possible. In some cases we have reached our limits, but our university has achieved incredible things in the past four months. I cannot thank the members of our university enough for this enormous commitment!
You have repeatedly emphasized that the ability to study is close to your heart. Will this be granted to at-risk groups in the autumn semester?
The university wants to protect members of corona high risk groups when the university returns to attendance classes and offer them alternatives. We will therefore try to offer an alternative to all students and lecturers who are unable to attend classroom courses in the autumn semester.
The university could prescribe the wearing of masks – this is a topic for debate?
We have already partially introduced compulsory masks in the research laboratories at the university. We have not yet decided on a policy for teaching and lectures. However, we are considering making masks compulsory for certain events. We will discuss all our protection concepts with the experts and the supporting cantons in order to offer students and lecturers the safest possible environment.
As a full university we have a great advantage: for our decisions we can draw on a competent network of experts in important fields such as epidemiology, infectiology, diagnostics, but also law and psychology. The expertise of researchers at the University of Basel has been in great demand in recent weeks, for example in the COVID-19 Science Task Force of the Swiss Confederation and in the media. In any case, we will strongly recommend all of the members of the University to use the SwissCovid app, which will facilitate contact tracing in case of infection.
In recent months, employees have had to work from home. Many have acquired a taste for it and would like to work partly at home in the hopefully soon virus-free future. Will that be possible?
The past few months have shown that many jobs can be done efficiently and effectively from home. So there is nothing to be said against allowing employees to continue to have a home office in the future if this is operationally possible. However, the scope must be agreed with the superiors. There are still many questions to be clarified on the subject of working from home, which is why our Human Resources department is drawing up the guidelines governing the home office for employees. We expect to be able to communicate these guidelines in the coming weeks.