The prospect of returning to campus was very much a two-sided affair. On one hand, there was the excitement of being back after so long, seeing the inside of lecture halls again and catching up with friends. On the other, seeing thousands of students once again congregating in the same area came loaded with anxiety considering all we’ve been through since March 2020.
With recent times so often filled with negativity, setbacks, and restrictions, this seemingly safe and successful return to campus has been a refreshing moment of positivity.
As ever, we wait to see the impact this change will have on the spread of Covid-19. For now, the university has adapted to the ‘new normal’ in impressive fashion, though one or two kinks may need ironing out as we learn to live on a COVID-friendly campus.
Perhaps the biggest question the university faced before students came back to NUI Galway; was how could it be done in a socially distant manner?
For returning students, think back to those hellish treks in and out of class along the concourse, hundreds of others wading through the same sea of people as you.
No such problems in the post-Covid college. Previously busy areas like the concourse are now pleasantly occupied, if not at times eerily quiet. Adjustments made to timetables and individual halls and classrooms have largely ensured that students and lecturers can distance themselves safely.
The sight of a quiet Smokey’s at lunchtime, a spaced out Sult and a more relaxed transition from one class to another are jarring. Importantly though, they’re all signs that in-person university life can be socially distant.
Emerging from the winter lockdown into the spring months, the important distinction between the safety of indoor and outdoor contact was hammered home by public health officials.
The use of outdoor space on campus has had varying degrees of success. There was a great buzz outside áras na Mac Léinn as groups occupied the rows of benches and the adorable inflatable ottomans under a gazebo affectionately dubbed ‘Hub Amach’.
Just one problem; this is Galway. To borrow a university slogan, “Here is where it rains”. A lot.
Week one was thankfully bookended by a few days of uncharacteristic September sunshine. On the flipside, in-person Socs Day was postponed following thunderstorms and a weather warning.
Such a big event getting pushed back due to weather was a timely reminder that while using our many wonderful green spaces for people to socialise, we’re inching ever closer to wintertime. Students will need somewhere to go when the outdoors are a no-go.
Social distancing keeps us safe, but it can also limit the amount of people that can take refuge from the cold. A lack of social space for students was a problem at NUI Galway long before the pandemic. There will have to be somewhere for everybody to go once the weather deteriorates.
As the university welcomes us into a hugely changed campus environment, there will be a natural adjustment period. The in-class experience has thus far worked quite well, as has the re-opening of the various food outlets.
One example being communal spaces used to prepare takeaway teas and coffees. Everyone is still taking from the same sachets of sugar, grabbing the same stirring rods, and touching the same lids. Catching Covid-19 from surfaces might still be possible.
It’s a learning curve for us as we get used to what is expected of us upon returning. To do so the powers that be need to engage, analyse and re-adjust to ensure that we retain the measures that do work, discard those that don’t, and add new ones as needed.