Will students be required to wear facemasks?
Making facemasks compulsory is an alternative, if it would allow classroom teaching to go ahead. At the moment, however, I am unable to give you a definite ruling on the wearing of facemasks. It's also important to see the effects that the latest measures taken by the government to ease the lockdown have on the rate of new infections in Switzerland. Many factors play a role here: most students travel to campus by public transport. Furthermore, they do not simply stay at home during their free time: they go to the cinema, restaurant or even the occasional party. So the clear guidelines set by ETH will be helpful here: they remind students to be aware of the risks and behave accordingly. For example, it is absolutely essential that anyone suffering from a cold, fever or other symptoms does not attend any teaching events on campus. On top of that, all students are actively encouraged to use the SwissCovid tracing app.
You mention contact tracing: what's your thinking on that?
It allows us to know exactly who is registered for the teaching events. Contact tracing also plays a key role in our approach to organising exercise groups, especially in the first year.
Why in the first year especially?
Let me elaborate: the first year is normally the most difficult for students, as that's when the selection process takes place. This first year is crucial for deciding whether they are on track to achieving their BSc or have to leave. Research by ETH has shown that students' social networks have a significant influence on academic success. In normal years, students already make initial contacts during pre-study events, and these often develop into study groups or friendships that continue right through university and even beyond. We think it's important for them to be able to interact with each other to encourage meaningful association between first-year students. In order to provide the same opportunities this year, we came up with the idea of splitting them into groups of around two dozen students each, who then complete the exercises together, across all subjects. This allows study groups to be formed that do not have to observe the rules on physical distancing as strictly, because we can quickly inform other group members as soon as anyone presents symptoms.
All these arrangements sound laudable, but there are also some students who are particularly vulnerable. What precautions will be in place for them?
Our goal is that all lectures delivered in the classroom or auditorium will be recorded and made available to enrolled students within a short period. This will allow not only students in a risk group, but all others, to follow and engage with the teaching. It will also result in reduced occupancy rates in our lecture halls. All the teaching materials will also be available online for exercise groups, even in the first year. Facemasks will be required when attending practicals, laboratory sessions and other events, where a physical presence is necessary and where it is impossible to comply with rules on physical distancing.
So far we have only discussed the general direction. But who decides which specific events take place and in what format?
We have already been working very closely with the academic departments to ensure that the available capacities for classroom teaching are utilised as efficiently as possible. This has resulted in the general direction I described earlier, which the Rectorate is now advocating. Given the special importance of the first year, we are planning the relevant exercises centrally within Academic Services. The planning of other teaching events will be done by the academic departments, and specifically by the individual degree programmes and lecturers, based on their expertise in their areas. They know best the type of event for which classroom teaching is essential or would deliver the maximum benefit. The flexibility I mentioned above is important here, although the Rectorate will coordinate and support the planning process. Depending on how the pandemic progresses, we may need to revert to online teaching overnight or – in the best-case scenario – we may be able to continue to step up classroom teaching.
Can you already tell us when the detailed plans for room occupancy will be available and when students will be informed?
We are currently working flat-out to adapt the Course Catalogue to the new circumstances. Any changes to the degree programmes will then be gradually phased in during July, so that we expect to be able to publish the new and final version of the Course Catalogue at the start of August and begin enrolment for the Autumn Semester 2020.
One last question about a group that we haven't mentioned yet: international students. What is the situation in their case?
Students from Europe will be able to start the semester as normal now that the Swiss government has decided to open the borders with these countries. Of course, this is always provided there is no increase in the infection rate before the autumn. Students from other countries, who hold a residence permit, will also be able to enter Switzerland. Anyone without a permit will have to wait for the immigration office to deal with their case: I appreciate this situation is unsatisfactory, but there's nothing we can do to change it. We are currently exploring alternative solutions with other universities. Completing an entire semester purely online is impossible due to the practicals and laboratory exercises that have to be done on campus. I feel sorry for all those affected. We are making an exception, however: anyone who has already been admitted to a masters’ course in the Autumn Semester 2020 may defer their entry for a year.