“This coming September, we will revert to 100% face-to-face classes, busy classrooms and desks, cluttered blackboards and crowded corridors. However, we will continue to support anyone unable to attend in person for logistics reasons”. These words delivered by University of Trento rector Flavio Deflorian shed light on two different scenarios concerning the resumption of university activities: the first contemplates a willingness and also need to resume in-classroom education, which delivers more than smart learning, far beyond the individual lessons; while the second reflects the awareness that many will find it difficult to return to pre-pandemic courses, and need an alternative plan.
University and Research Minister Maria Cristina Messa expressed enthusiasm and confidence in the resumption of face-to-face classes: “We are organising for a full reopening, as far as the epidemic permits”.
This is why many universities are organising themselves, trying to make their courses more inclusive, simplifying the work, and also the logistics, for students and teachers.
The operative word is ‘flexibility’: each university must provide both face-to-face and distance learning classes, and also be responsive with any health-related lockdowns, without creating gaps in courses.
One option, for example, would be to do away with mandatory in-person attendance, thus not forcing children to return at all costs: a number of out-of-town students may not want to rent a house or room at the moment, finding the Italian distance learning programme (DaD) more convenient and efficient. They also need to be persuaded to return to the physical classroom, yet an overnight return is unlikely.
One of Minister Messa’s proposed keystones entails “attracting students with sleeping quarters, dormitories, scholarships and a university life that transcends the actual lecture halls. We need to recreate the campus, which is a breeding ground for ideas, culture and sociality”.
The University of Pisa, for instance, interpreted the need for flexibility by letting students book classroom seats with an app. While lectures will normally be in-person, there will soon be a booking app, conceived to prevent overcrowded lecture halls in compliance with social distancing measures.
Rector Paolo Mancarella explains that “students can use this app to reserve a classroom seat for the courses they plan on attending in a two-week timeframe. If the number of sign-ups for a particular course exceeds the maximum number of available classroom seats, the app will automatically divide the students into two groups, which will be given priority to attend classes in the first and second weeks”.
Exams will also revert to being held in person as of September, subject to the availability of suitable facilities and with special exceptions for students in protected categories.
The University of Molise is taking a different tack with its ‘technological’ approach. Enrolment in the first year and subsequent years began on 1 July. The decision to bring forward the date, says Unimol, means that classes for the first semester can start safely at several locations as early as 20 September 2021, with new classrooms and upgraded, 835-seat capacity facilities equipped with modern technology: 65-inch monitors, all-in-one PCs, video camera, graphics tablets, overhead projectors and software for remote monitoring of classroom computers.
Palermo, meanwhile, has adopted an even wider no-tax zone to encourage all students to return to their desks: UNIPA has posted steady enrolment growth for over five years and is also in good financial standing. Thirteen new courses have already been scheduled, three of which are taught in English and exclusively through Dad, namely Management Engineering; International Relations & Trade; and Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering: mainly catering to students from Southeast Asia and Maghreb.
These are the first three exclusively distance-learning courses”, says Rector Fabrizio Micari, “in addition to other language courses that we have offered in previous years. We have learned a lot from distance learning during the pandemic and we believe in a more open university“.
Green Pass and safety
The Green Pass Chapter. Any teacher who fails to obtain a certificate will be suspended and will not receive a salary after five days of absence. The decree stipulates that all school and university staff must have and display the Green Pass to ensure public health and maintain adequate safety conditions in the provision of essential education services.
And some universities are adjusting accordingly: Trieste is looking into developing an app for booking lessons (a bit like the one designed by the University of Pisa): In this case, however, the software would have to interact with the Green Pass on the smartphone for a preventive safety check, yet without access to sensitive data and therefore without violating the privacy of the students.
Finally, the importance of attracting, as Minister Messa points out, students to lectures must not conflict with the needs of off-campus students, who tally roughly 570,000 out of 1.7 million university students. Of these, at least 300,000 off-campus students live in rented flats or rooms, receiving no scholarships and spending between €6,500 and €8,000 a year on rent, utilities and other related costs.
Students are overall satisfied with the return to face-to-face classes, which is also evident from the growth in the rental market.
A June study by Immobiliare.it found that, compared to the beginning of the year, this summer’s figures show a growth rate of more than 600% in Palermo, followed by Venice, which posted a 528% increase in the first five months, and Pisa, where interest increased fivefold (+440%). And even in cities where searches have always been higher, such as Milan, Florence and Bologna, the figures are up 38%, 59% and 22% respectively. Costs, however, are much lower than pre-pandemic: average room prices have dropped by as much as 16%, like in Bologna, and 11% in Milan and Florence.