College after Covid: what to expect

Welcome back week at Trinity College Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Vaccine certs, pre-booked library seats; it’s college, but not as you know it

It was a year of college – without the experience. No large lectures, no bars, no chance, late-night encounters with new classmates. Normal People, it wasn’t.

Instead, there was university by Zoom, online assignments and, if lucky, a sterile and socially distanced practical or laboratory session.

All that is about to change.

Most campuses are officially reopening on Monday and set to receive tens of thousands of students. Large lectures will resume for the first time in 18 months; college bars and canteens will reopen for those with vaccine certs; clubs and societies will gear up for debating, sports and other activities.

It promises to be a jolting and intoxicating change – especially for second year students like Hannah Ledesma who has spent little or no time on campus since starting college.

Her college experience so far has been through the small screen of her laptop in her bedroom at home in Mountmellick, Co Laois. Today, she’s due to move to Dublin to a house-share with nine other students.

‘Will I cope with stepping up to real lectures? A lot of us feel that maybe we’re not where we should be’ says Hannah Ledesma, a UCD student, remote learning at home in Mountmellick, Co Laois last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Hannah Ledesma, a UCD student, remote learning at home in Mountmellick, Co Laois last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

“I feel a mix of huge anticipation and nerves,” says Ledesma (19), who is studying politics and international relations.

“I can’t wait for a proper college experience. I only know my classmates from Zoom. We haven’t met. That will feel a bit awkward. I’m worried, too, about the academic side of things. Will I cope with stepping up to real lectures? A lot of us feel that maybe we’re not where we should be.”

So, what can students expect when college reopens? What kind of activity will be permitted for clubs and societies? How will rules differ from college to college? And what shadow is likely to be cast from a year of remote learning?

Lectures

All third-level colleges are planning to resume face-to-face lectures without the need for vaccination checks, as they are designated as academic activity.

As a result, students can expect to spend most of their time on campus – but numbers permitted into lectures will vary significantly from college to college.

UCD is among the most ambitious: it will reopen at normal capacity with no limits on numbers in lectures. This means lectures with anything up to 500 students.

The only difference is that face masks will be mandatory – as they will be for lectures across all colleges – and classes will be cut from 60 to 45 minutes to help manage crowds.

Universities such as UCC, DCU, University of Limerick and Maynooth are planning to resume most lectures at or near normal capacity levels, with limits of 200-300 students for large lectures; NUI Galway is placing an 80 per cent limit on capacity for classes with more than 100 students.

Some are taking a more cautious approach. Trinity College Dublin, for example, says all lectures above 150 students will be online. Smaller classes will either be in-person or online, depending on access to classrooms. These limits may be relaxed for the second part of the term from November 1st onwards.

TU Dublin says it is prioritising in-person delivery of smaller teaching groups, with some remote teaching for larger lectures.

Across institutes of technology, plans vary: Athlone IT has set a limit of 150 students per lecture, while IT Sligo says capacity limits mean students can expect to be on campus for two-five days, depending on the course.

University College Cork (UCC): The College bar will be open for indoor dining from the start of term
University College Cork (UCC): The College bar will be open for indoor dining from the start of term

Bars and cafes

Bars and canteens are reopening in line with national guidelines: students and staff are required to show a vaccine certificate to gain access to indoor cafes and bars.

“The Clubhouse bar here reopened for the first time this week since March 2020 and already there’s a buzz about the place,” says UCD students’ union president, Ruairí Power.

Some colleges – mindful of overcrowding – are erecting temporary facilities outdoors to cater for more students safely.

“Cafes across the campus will operate on a takeaway basis,” says a UCC spokesman. “Our bar, Club Áras na MacLéinn, will open for the start of term with indoor dining subject to prevailing national guidelines. Four marquees have been erected across campus to provide outdoor dining facilities.”

Clubs and societies

Colleges are gearing up for a return to normal activity for the first time in 18 months, but clubs and societies will be subject to national public health restrictions on indoor gatherings. That is because they are designated as non-academic activities.

From September 20th, societies can meet indoors with up to 100 people if they are all vaccinated. If not, they must remain in groups of six and ensure social distancing.

So, debating societies, for example, can resume indoors – as long as there are vaccination checks. Most are hopeful these restrictions will ease by late October.

TU Dublin says students will have far more opportunities to participate in societies, sport and social activities, meet new people, and try new hobbies outside of their studies.

“Of course we will be adhering to the prevailing public health guidelines, but there will be lots to choose from, including fitness classes, film screenings, quizzes, gaming tournaments and volunteering events,” a TU Dublin spokeswoman says.

Returning to Maynooth University campus, Co Kildare. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Returning to Maynooth University campus, Co Kildare. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Sports

Sports matches, training and fitness classes are resuming outdoors across all colleges, in line with national restrictions.

Most indoor gyms are open by appointment, with limited numbers, as are swimming pools. Indoor training, dance and fitness classes are due to recommence from September 20th, in line with Government restrictions.

“Outdoor sporting matches, training and fitness classes – in pods of 15 – are taking place across our facilities,” says a Trinity College Dublin spokeswoman.

Libraries

Most colleges say their libraries will reopen – but with pre-booked seats or scheduled access to study spaces, in many cases. No proof of vaccination will be required.

Athlone Institute of Technology, like many, will be maintaining a booking system for access to desks and computer spaces. This, a spokeswoman says, is to ensure capacity is kept at a safe level. Group study rooms at the college will remain closed until further notice.

At NUI Galway, the Hardiman Library is planning for 700 spaces for students, while a “noisy” study space is being set up in the Bailey Allen Hall from Monday next.

Students beside the lake in UCD, Belfield: UCD will reopen at normal capacity with no limits on numbers in lectures. This means lectures with anything up to 500 students
Students beside the lake in UCD, Belfield: UCD will reopen at normal capacity with no limits on numbers in lectures. This means lectures with anything up to 500 students

Freshers’ weeks and orientation events

Most colleges are planning orientation weeks for new students – including second years, on the basis that most haven’t set foot on campus before.

At UCD, for example, first and second years will get a peer mentor – a more senior student – who will meet them on day one and help them to settle in.

“We have several hundred of these volunteer student mentors,” says a UCD spokeswoman.

At NUI Galway, they are planning drop-in areas where students can ask questions about university life, along with city tours and “walk and talk” sessions.