Like many third-level colleges in Ireland, WIT is set to resume face-to-face teaching next week. Thus the college will begin the second semester of the academic year at a time when the Covid infection rate is running at over 20,000 a day, surely close to peak Omicron. To be sure, there is little question that online learning is a poor substitute for face-to-face teaching – but the obvious solution is to delay the second semester for a few weeks, rather than put the health of many thousands of staff and students at unnecessary risk. One wonders why colleges have not explored this option.
It’s not as if postponing the onset of the second college semester would impose a great hardship on students. In many countries, a long break after the first semester exams is the norm in third level colleges. Indeed, I recall a great deal of talk about a long break in January when semesterization was first introduced to third level colleges in Ireland, although it never materialized.
Perhaps the problem lies at the other end of the semester. It’s hard to see why ending lectures in May rather than April would pose an insurmountable problem. Yet, one suspects this is indeed the problem. It seems to be an inviolable law of academia that all college lectures must cease in April. I’ve never quite understood this law, although I must admit I don’t question it much; given the heavy teaching loads during the semester, almost all research is done outside the teaching weeks. But why the college as a whole must grind to a halt in April, irrespective of exceptional circumstances, is far from clear.
All in all, it seems that an opportunity for colleges to show flexibility during a difficult period has been missed. No doubt, politicians and college managements will claim inflexibility on the side of the teaching unions, while the unions will retort that no suggestion of a delay was put to them. Whatever the reason, college staff and students across the country face a daunting term with a high probability of infection, not to mention teaching classes that are severely depleted by both infections and close contacts.