Not even six months have passed since that day in mid-March when the steep rise in coronavirus cases in Ireland brought college life to a halt, and led to a mass exodus of students from Dublin. Indeed, with the cancellation of lectures announced as only a temporary measure, the more optimistic students amongst us hoped to be back in the Ussher in time to prepare for Summer exams.
As we all know, that didn’t happen and as quickly as we had to adjust to remote learning, so we had to get used to the idea of this as a permanent alternative to in-person teaching. We watched as The University of Cambridge confirmed in May that online learning would resume for the next academic year, and worried that Trinity would follow suit.
In light of this, the government’s announcement yesterday that the two-metre social distancing rule can be relaxed in lectures and classes comes as a welcome development. It means that more lectures can be carried out in person, and that we can look forward to being able to see and bounce ideas off teachers and classmates.
It comes as particularly good news to international students and those living in private rented accommodation, as the more in-person teaching provided, the easier it is to justify spending money on living away from home. Students will be amongst the worst hit by the financial instability caused by the pandemic, and thus by having to spend extortionate amounts of money on rent for no reason, the problem would only be worsened. For this reason, let us hope that the college maximises the amount of in-person teaching available to each student.
Unfortunately, the strict rules against congregating outside lecture theatres will mean that days of being able to discuss the next lecture’s reading on one of those oddly shaped backless Arts Block couches are over. Let’s face it: Trinity’s narrow corridors and tiny tutorial rooms were not built with social distancing in mind, and had the two-metre rule not been relaxed, we would likely be facing a whole new term of exclusively Zoom-delivered lectures. Having spent the best part of last term behind a laptop screen, it will no doubt serve as a morale-boost to students to once again sit – though at a distance – in the presence of their classmates.
The loosening of social-distancing requirements as announced by the government yesterday came with a caveat, however. Face masks must be worn by students in classes and lectures.
Let us spare a thought for those of us who wear glasses, for whom wearing masks creates the constant irritation of fogged-up lenses. However, while they may be uncomfortable and unsightly, wearing them is a small price to pay for being able to attend college and use the library once again. I, for one, see this as a bonus: face coverings allow us to dispense with the awkward pleasantries of pre-lecture small talk. A silver lining, perhaps, on the many infringements imposed by Covid-19 on our social lives.
It remains to be seen how social distancing will affect the accessibility of the college library facilities. Seating shortages were a massive problem long before social distancing became part of our vocabulary, and it’s hard to imagine that this year will be any different. At the very least, a more sophisticated team of desk monitors will be deployed, but this will not be enough.
The college has been promising more study space for years now, and it’s unlikely that they will be able to keep up with the demand created by social-distancing measures. Unless they can repurpose underutilised spaces effectively, and do so quickly, it looks like use of library spaces will be messy and complicated, leaving plenty of students looking elsewhere to study.
Yesterday’s announcement has paved the way for universities to give a clearer picture of what next year’s learning output will look like for students. But there are still a lot of questions to be answered. What will society life look like with social distancing at play? Are exams in the RDS a thing of the past?
It’s still impossible to imagine exactly what college life will look like next year. But I’m cautiously excited. I will never again take a 9am seminar for granted, or curse a lecturer for calling on me to comment on a reading. As sick as I am of hearing mention of the so-called “new normal”, I will be happy to make whatever compromises necessary to be able to attend lectures again.