Meeting in Person

Yesterday was the end of Week 4 of the Autumn Semester. Because Hallowe’en is on Sunday this year, the mid-term study break is a bit earlier than usual, meaning that Week 5 is the last week before that. That’s not to say we have a holiday of course, apart from the October Bank Holiday on 25th October, the first day of that week. There is, however no teaching in that week. Although the break is welcome, it does mean a rather long run-in of seven uninterrupted weeks of teaching until the Christmas break.

Anyway, yesterday we had our first in-person Departmental Meeting since I don’t know when. It wasn’t quite “normal” as some members of the Department joined via Teams, everyone wore masks and we held the meeting in a large-ish lecture theatre to enable physical distancing. We still have one lecturer who is not able to be in Ireland because of visa delays, so he joined remotely. At least there is a sign of movement on that issue, and we think he’ll be in Ireland and ready to teach after the study break, on November 1st. We did have student representatives present, which was very welcome, as it was difficult to arrange during the lockdown.

Although I’ve had about 18 months of practice to get used to virtual meetings I still dislike them so intensely that my heart sinks whenever anyone calls one that I have to attend, which is depressingly often. Meetings in person are so much better in my view. I don’t know why that is. Just call me old-fashioned. I think yesterday’s meeting went rather well, all things considered, with contributions from just about everyone present.

The October study break is traditionally when we prepare our examinations for the January period. One of the most important items on the agenda was what to do for this January. The official line is that we’re supposed to return to normal, with traditional examinations on campus. I think most lecturers will do their exams like that unless the public health situation deteriorates even more rapidly and we are forced to switch online again. With Covid-19 cases rising significantly, that is a distinct possibility.

I think most staff agree that there are positives to the online style of examinations and I’ve left it up to individuals to decide what they think is best for their particular modules. The important thing however is to inform the students as quickly as possible so they know what’s going to hit them. Students in Year 2 have never had a “traditional” examination at Maynooth and those in Year 3 only had one set, way back in January 2020. They will need to readjust to not having an “open book” style of examination. On the other hand, in theoretical physics we try to test problem-solving rather than memory so I think we’re in a better position than many disciplines to manage this.

First-year students this year are in a different but also tricky situation, in that they are facing their first set of University examinations having had their school education significantly disrupted by the pandemic. We have to help them cope with the fact that they may not be as well prepared as students in previous years. Since I’m teaching the first-years this Semester, this means doing more revision classes and tips on examination technique.

I’ve alluded to the backdrop of rising Covid-19 cases already, and this is causing considerable uncertainty. Some time ago the Irish Government announced that most remaining public health restrictions would be scrapped from 22nd October, i.e. on Friday but case numbers are alarmingly high:

There has been a steep rise recently, not only in positive tests as shown on the graph, but also in positivity rate and hospitalizations. I think this is not surprising. The Coronavirus is circulating like wildfire in the UK right now and it is very difficult for Ireland to insulate itself from that given the open border. In addition it is still the case that about 10% of the adult population is not vaccinated and those who refuse the vaccine are also most likely not to observe social distancing, wear masks, etc. Only 1-in-10 are not vaccinated, but it only takes one to give you the virus.

At least I can say that students in my classes have observed the rules on mask-wearing diligently once in the classroom. The one-way systems in place in campus and staggered lecture start times have been less somewhat successful. I’ve arrived for classes several times only to find the previous lecturer over-running with the consequence that the students in my class are in close proximity to those in the previous class on the way in and out respectively.

I doubt if these infringements are causing significant problems, however. I think it’s far more likely that the virus is spreading in social events and on public transport. The basic problem is that in the minds of some people the pandemic is already over, though in my experience of everyday life outside the University people in shops etc are masking up and behaving sensibly.

We await the announcements due on Friday with interest. If I had to guess I would say that the Government will once again cave in to pressure from the hospitality industry and remove restrictions on bars, restaurants and nightclubs and then feign surprise that infections rise yet again. That won’t have an immediate effect on universities and colleges but it will probably prolong the pandemic well into next year, and necessitate a programme of booster shots for the whole population.

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