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Universities welcome post-Covid return to campus

Opening of laboratories, canteens and classrooms throws spotlight on plight of students, CPU says

France’s Conference of University Presidents has expressed its “huge relief” at the reopening of French universities but called on society to do more for the wellbeing of students.

The group said the next semester should be filled with determination to make a success of the country’s changed higher education landscape. France began to reopen universities this month, after nationwide closures since October to reduce the spread of coronavirus.

At present, lecture theatres and laboratories are operating at 20 per cent capacity to ensure social distancing. However, the CPU said that despite such restrictions, an estimated 60 per cent of students attended university campuses at least once in the first week of February.

The ongoing return to normality, which would include face-to-face teaching alongside distance and hybrid learning, would reach “cruising speed” by the end of the now-ongoing February mid-term holidays, the rectors said.

“The crisis has reminded society of the importance of the role of its youth and its students: this awareness strengthens the determination of our institutions for the success of students during this second semester,” the CPU said in a statement. “The CPU sees this as hope for a lasting recovery, which is essential to overcome the effects of the crisis on the current year.”

Back to normal

Universities are offering measures such Covid-19 screening tests and psychological support to students and staff to speed up the return to normal operations. On 5 February, higher education minister Frédérique Vidal re-opened university canteens in order to ensure that students had access to low-cost meals.

The CPU, along with higher education and research trade unions, has called for a rapid return to campus since December. Alongside interruption to research and teaching, the unions expressed concerns about the mental health of students.

One survey, published last week by the University of Picardy Jules Verne’s student health service, found that a large number of its student body met the criteria for several psychological conditions. Around 72 per cent of students had experienced psychological distress, 54 per cent had experienced anxiety, and 33 per cent had displayed symptoms of depression during the university’s closure.

The survey also found that nearly one in five students had had suicidal thoughts. The survey recorded somewhat greater distress among female students, though there was variation between the sexes in sample size, with more female than male respondents.

Picardy Jules Verne was quoted in Le Monde as saying students were worried about the virus, the health of loved ones and fearful about the future, while also suffering “a lack of socialisation, which at that age is so important”.

Last week, several French news outlets reported that local universities had organised virtual open days instead of having prospective students visit campus. These included the University of Angers, the University of Caen Normandy, the University of Southern Brittany and the University of Poitiers.

A version of this article also appeared in Research Europe