Overcoming the pandemic: Universities across Europe strive to maintain studies


The pandemic has made much of what was once ordinary in society incredibly challenging. This continues to affect the institutions of higher education presently preparing the great thinkers and innovators of tomorrow: universities. To keep the halls and walls of advanced learning alive, institutions across Europe have rolled out extensive measures, committing themselves to keep staff and students safe.

 Testing is, as always, absolutely essentially. Universities also require strict regulations to keep case counts on their watch as low as possible. One way many schools have overcome lockdowns restrictions is through offering their courses to students online. However, as this is not a long-term fix, they have to balance their energies between providing continuity, with virtual teaching during periods of tighter restrictions, and effective on-campus rules and protocols, when face-to-face teaching remains possible.

IE University

Since opening up for the 2020/2021 academic year, IE University in Spain has taken every measure to ensure the sanitary safety of its campuses in Madrid and Segovia. The university made a triple commitment: to protect the health of those in its community, to communicate with transparency about events as they develop, and to maintain it academic activity.

“Our campus is safe. We have implemented measures that go beyond those established by the authorities and we are working tirelessly to prevent infection and protect our community,” explained Salvador Carmona, Rector of IE University.

As part of this commitment, students and staff had to take a detection test to assess them for Covid-19 antibodies before setting foot on campus. More than 12.000 PCR, serological and antigen tests have been conducted so far at IE. Students were also asked to sign an agreement committing to abide by the university safety policies and public health standards.  This included the daily requirement to self-report health and potential symptoms on IE University’s COVID-19 Tracer Web App.

The president of IE, Santiago Íñiguez de Onzoño, connected directly with students through a video message, urging them “to be especially aware of all those risks, as well as to be responsible.”

“Preserving this safe environment depends on your observance of all these protocols. Please take these instructions very seriously, since neglecting them poses an unbearable risk to our entire community,” he emphasised.

IE University’s medical teams have been working closely with local authorities to control the outbreak, coordinating with them as far as tracking and recording cases. On campus, rigorous protocols cover all aspects of daily activity: masks are worn at all times on campus, signage guides students and faculty around buildings, reducing the amount of contact between people. There are sanitary hand gel dispensers widely available, and thermometric cameras record body temperatures where people enter the main university buildings. Anti-bacterial cleaning protocols have been significantly intensified.

Sapienza University of Rome

Similar measures have been taken in Italy. As of September, Sapienza University updated the precautionary measures for staff and students on and off campus, with new documents for the different activities, and offered guidance for classroom teaching available online.

As one would expect, the university implemented protective measures issued by the Italian health authorities. Also, doctors of the Specialisation School in Hygiene and Preventive Medicine of Sapienza University, supported by the University Communication Office and the InfoSapienza Centre, issued materials that indicate the fundamental rules for the return to activities.

A task force composed of scientific experts and prevention office managers was also established to oversee implementation of measures at the university.

“The task force has been carefully following the international and national epidemiological development and the updates given on official sources,” Sapienza explained.

The message from the university to students and families during the pandemic: “Sapienza never stops.”

TU Berlin (Berlin Institute of Technology)

In Germany, in coordination with various regional organisations and authorities, TU Berlin has chosen to implement a three-phase strategy. The plan determines the levels of restrictions imposed during the pandemic. TU Berlin’s phased plan became effective from 19 October 2020, starting with phase 2 level restrictions.

Phase 1 conditions is defined by measures designed to contain the further spread of the coronavirus. Less restrictions apply during such periods of comparatively low infection rates. In phase 2, there are more restrictive measures designed to contain the further spread of the coronavirus in the event of rising or high rates of infection.

At this time, the majority of buildings at TU Berlin where teaching takes place are open. Students have limited, controlled access to some buildings, while staff have full access. All TU Berlin buildings, of course, remain closed to the general public.

In the event of phase 3 significant restrictions will be imposed on in-presence operations, according to the university.

As a result of the levels of Covid-19 infections rates currently present in the Berlin state area, measures prevent many forms of teaching from taking place onsite.

“Only examinations, practical teaching formats, orientation events for newly enrolled students and selected courses for students in the first-degree semesters of bachelor’s programs may now take place in face-to-face format on campus,” the university recently mandated.

University College London

In England, University College London is working hard with its recognised unions and taking advice from its own high-level researchers to make sure its campus is safe.

“Our priority at all times is to make sure our campus is as safe as possible, minimise the risk to everyone onsite, and follow UK official guidance,” the university said.

UCL has introduced the UCL Connect to Protect reporting tool, to monitor and respond to any coronavirus cases. This tool was designed in coordination with public health experts and stands in addition to the national NHS Track and Trace system.

UCL is carrying out tailored risk assessments of all areas of campus and reducing the number of people onsite to 25 percent of capacity. Part of this is the “1 in 4 rule” in which all gatherings must take place in a room four times the size of the group.

The university also implemented a colour-coded zoning system around its campus buildings and surroundings, reducing the amount of contact and traffic between people. NHS COVID-19 app QR codes have also been put in place at the entrances of high-traffic buildings such as UCL cafes, libraries and halls.

UCL has established its own Covid-19 antigen testing facility, in partnership with Health Services Laboratories. The aim is to complement the national testing service, not replace it. Anyone who tests positive for the virus is quickly referred to the NHS Test and Trace system. 

Written by Daniel Myers