How will the university deal with social distancing?
What will life be like at university when the intelligent lockdown ends? Mare cautiously explores the library walking routes, lecture halls and canteens and discovers: there won’t be any in-class education for some time.
Tirza Pulleman
Thursday 7 May 2020

Once upon a time, you would get up extra early so you could be out of the house on time. You would wait for the door to open, then you would start running, elbowing your way in if necessary. All’s fair in love and the never-ceasing race to find a place at the university library.

Ah, the good old days.

Now, if the university library ever opens again, only a trickle of students will be allowed inside. “We can only use a quarter of the space”, explains Kurt de Belder, the library’s head. “The university library has a thousand study spaces but no more than 250 of them may be occupied.”

The university library is not the only thing to change, so when the university opens in the “social distancing era”, what will it be like? What will happen to the lecture halls, canteens and offices? Will there be red tape on the floors, like in the supermarkets? Will we have to wear face-masks, social distancing hats (like these Chinese kids) or bubble balls?


Obviously, there will be much less space at university when social distancing is imposed, raising the question: who will be allowed in?

The good old days, a claimed study place in the university library. Photograph by Taco van der Eb

De Belder says that the university library is not just busy reducing the number of study places, they are also trying to work out how to select the students who may use those scarce places.

“Obviously, we’ll only allow Leiden students in”, he says. “But even so, our library will be quite full, so some people won’t be able to use the study places. How are we going to arrange that? First come, first served? Perhaps a system of reservations? We’re still trying to work it out.”


It will take more than simply removing some 700 chairs. “We need to design a walking route. Our two staircases are too narrow so we’ll have to switch to a one-way system. The same goes for the lifts: one will be only for up, the other for down. And we’ll need to stop people passing each other too closely in the study rooms, so we need a one-way system there too. It will be a longer walk to another door to exit the study room.”

Despite all the problems (“the loos: what about them?”), De Belder does not expect the university libraries to open any time soon. “That’s why we’re working out social distancing for the library step by step.”

First, students will be use the printers again if they reserve one. The Special Collections reading room can open again, by reservation only, so that people can get back to their research.

“It’s a treacherous disease because it impacts our capacity for sociability”

Is in-class education feasible at a university working with social distancing? Not yet, the university has decided.

“The message is: online classes – perhaps a hybrid system wherever possible – for the entire first term”, says Egbert Koops, Professor of Legal History.

He hopes it’s possible to set up the master’s degree programme as a hybrid system, a mixture of online and offline courses. “And we need to take exams offline as soon as possible too, even if it means more work.” Obviously, students will need to sit their exams in smaller groups, so that means making several versions.

Science students have the added problem of needing labs for practical sessions as well as lecture halls. Jan Aarts, Head of Science and Professor of Experimental Physics, explains that “practicals are an extra source of worry for next year’s teaching set-up.”


Another problem is whether there will be enough room to accommodate all the staff now more space is required. Jan-Bart Gewald, Head of the African Studies Centre and Professor of the History of Africa and his crisis team have been worrying about the space for some weeks now. The research centre in the Pieter de la Court Building employs more than fifty staff, but only has about 20 (small) offices.

“We’ll need to draw up a kind of roster so that we can make sure there’s only one person in an office at a time, but colleagues can swap days, of half-days, with each other. And we’ll need to map out a walking route in the larger offices where more than two people work.”

He supposes that the communal coffee and lunch breaks are out of the question for the time being. “It’s a treacherous disease because it impacts our best quality, our capacity for sociability”

“We need to carry on to keep the university’s financial engine ticking over”

Although he is busy working out the details for a social distancing protocol, he expects that everyone will be working from home in the coming months.

“I underestimated how tiring it is to work on small monitors and most of our staff don’t have ergonomic workplaces at home; everyone’s expected to buy one. On the one hand, the university admits that we have a major problem, but on the other, we’re all expected to carry on, even if it’s just to keep the university’s financial engine ticking over and that’s what worries me.”


Remco Breuker, Professor of Korean Studies, agrees with him. “If we force people to keep on working from home, the university will need to provide some structural support. They should allow us to take our office computers home with us – so far, I’ve not been allowed to. And better desk chairs: I can’t be the only one whose back’s playing up now I’m working from home. I would be back at the university in a flash.”

Gewald would too: “As the head of the faculty, I’ve noticed how important it is to be at the office - it’s easier to find out what’s going on. Now, the people who need help are the ones who don’t ring or send me an email.”


How will the canteens deal with social distancing when the university opens again? “We’re going to remove all points of hand contact from the restaurant”, says Rob Buis, the Location Manager. “Staff will wear gloves to serve soup and salads, which people helped themselves to before. The ‘snack wall’ with the croquettes will close; I’d be disinfecting the covers all day long otherwise.”

But no need to worry, fried snacks will still be on the menu: “We’ll put them out in earthenware trays.”


“We’ll lay out walking routes in the canteens and cafés, like you see in the supermarkets; we’re comparing it to a game of Mother Goose. And we’ll limit the number of people allowed inside.” “Cough screens” will be installed at the cash desks.

He warns that things won’t improve much in the way of crowding in the canteens. “We did a trial run in the Pieter de la Court Building and we weren’t very happy. We’ll lose at least two thirds of the seats. We also expect that not all the buildings will be fully occupied. In general, the staff will be the ones to return first, and they often eat in their offices. It will be difficult for us to buy in and prepare the food. The quantities will be far less.”

“In the end, we’ll just have to wait and see. We’re ready. We can open in under an hour if they give us the go-ahead.”