The autumn term is drawing near and I trust that all of you are looking forward to returning to a more open campus. I write “more open” since we will not be back to normalcy but to a campus where the need for physical presence and in-person teaching will have to be balanced with the need for social distancing and other measures to minimize the risk of SARS-CoV-2 virus transmission. This trade-off is difficult to implement and will certainly give rise to some frustration and disappointment at times. But we have no choice: the safety and security of our staff and students must be our highest priority.
The return to campus must be safe and responsible. Safety is inextricably intertwined with responsibility. It is incumbent on all of us to act responsibly to safeguard the health of ourselves and others. A safe return to campus is teamwork –– no less. We – students and staff alike – must be vigilant, and we must all be attuned to the fact that virus may spread and infections spike, whenever safety measures are relaxed. Gatherings that are not compatible with physical distancing must be avoided – be it on campus or beyond.
There is no universal recipe for opening a university campus. Far from it. During the summer, I have been in touch with many rector colleagues in the Nordic countries and in other parts of the world, and I have learnt that strategies differ a lot. Some universities are very restrictive and mandate repeated testing and use of face masks, while other higher education institutions take few measures. In short: opening a campus is more of an art than a science. Any strategy for opening up must be based on evidence where evidence is available, and on a precautionary principle where evidence is lacking. So far, less than a handful of research articles have directly addressed the health implications of safety measures on university campuses.
Fortunately, our understanding of how the virus spreads in society at large is increasing daily. Much progress has been made only over the past few months and our strategy for opening KI’s campus rests solidly on this. We take as a point of departure that the virus may spread through air, not only as larger droplets but likely also in the form of aerosols, as well as through contaminated surfaces. This highlights the need for efficient ventilation and for adequate cleaning and sanitizing procedures. We also recommend the use of face masks in situations where physical distancing may be difficult or impossible to observe. In doing so, we take the stand that the effectiveness of face masks can no longer be disputed.
Detailed information on how to safely and responsibly return to a new semester will be found on our homepage and in a document that will be made available shortly. We expect all students and staff to respect and adhere to the recommendations of the Swedish Public Health Authority (Folkhälsomyndigheten, FoHM). In some respects, KI’s recommendations are more detailed and go beyond those of the FoHM. This is warranted, given the fact that KI is a medical university with an international campus and a multifaceted educational program. The recommendations of FoHM are necessarily aimed at society at large and thus not adapted to KI’s specific activities.
When we return to campus, we are in the fortunate situation that testing is now available to all via Region Stockholm. Tests are in general free of charge, if you are in a group who needs to pay you will be reimbursed by KI. KI will encourage students and staff to make use of this opportunity. There should be a low threshold for testing, be it for ongoing infections (PCR tests) or past infections (antibody tests). Obviously, accessibility to testing does not substitute for other measures. Students and staff must study or work at home if they experience any symptoms indicative of COVID-19 and they should also study or work at home in case of suspected or confirmed COVID-19 among household members. Risk-taking is inexcusable in a society experiencing a pandemic.
Safe opening of our campuses for teaching as well as research is of paramount importance. However, heading into a new semester, I see a number of other challenges that we have to grapple with in the foreseeable future:
- Care and research linked to COVID-19 has had top priority to date, and understandably so. However, this has created a displacement effect that cannot be neglected. Now is the time to ensure that clinical and other research studies beyond COVID-19 are safeguarded and that new studies are allowed to prosper and thrive.
- On a similar note, funding bodies nationally and internationally must remain open for researcher-driven and curiosity-driven projects across all topics. This should also be true at the EU level, where it is important that the European Research Council maintains its quality-only profile.
- Due to COVID-19, many researchers have experienced disruptions in their career development, and many PhD students have seen their projects being delayed. Creativity and flexibility must be employed to mitigate these effects.
- Many research foundations have suffered because of the economic downturn and cannot support research projects to the same extent as before. Researchers early in their careers might be particularly affected.
- Work placements and clinical training have faced increasing difficulties over the past few months, due to COVID-19 and coincident factors. Long-term planning in close cooperation with Region Stockholm is needed to uphold a supply of qualified personnel to the health care sector and to ensure that all students can proceed as planned with their courses and studies. We have had an excellent cooperation with Region Stockholm on current educational challenges. This bodes well for the future education and health care in our region.
- The current situation is a special challenge for our new students. We must make them feel welcome and help them connect with our campus and university.
- The pandemic’s negative impact on universities – economically and otherwise – must be brought to the national agenda. The long-term consequences of this impact will be serious unless adequate steps are taken in the immediate future. If the comparatively low spread of infection in Sweden and Stockholm endures, continued careful and responsible opening of universities and colleges should have high priority compared with opening of other workplaces.
Opening a campus calls for clear recommendations, but also for a great deal of humility given the dearth of evidence and unpredictability of the situation at hand. We must be prepared to adjust our strategies and to plan for different scenarios, in cooperation with the government and expert authorities. It is incumbent on each of us to protect the most fragile in society, and the measures taken should be understood in this context. As KI students and employees, we have a responsibility both within and outside the university’s walls.
A safe and responsible return must be viewed as a team effort.