IT’S Week Three of the new academic year and students and lecturers at Letterkenny Institute of Technology are getting used to the ‘new normal’.
The Port Road campus is mapped out with one-way systems and hand sanitising stations and masks have to be worn, including in lessons, by staff and students.
Paul Hannigan, President of LYIT, said the campus is home to a record number of students this year with almost 1,200 first years enrolled among its 3,500 full-time student population.
With between 750 and 800 students attending classes on-site each day, LYIT libraries remain open, with strict social distancing protocols and entry registration. All research activities continue as normal but on-campus student social and club activities remain suspended until further notice.
“Our priority is the health and safety of both staff and students and everybody is trying to get back to some degree of normality,” Mr Hannigan said.
Additional Covid-19 restrictions, imposed just days before LYIT re-opened the campus for new and continuing students across the North West region, didn’t help preparations.
“We started back on Monday, September 28 and Donegal moved into Level 3 the previous Friday night. A huge amount of work had already been done, in terms of the physical building, sign posting, one-way systems, and we had been aiming for a return for face-to-face teaching for around fifty per cent of our classes.
“Even when Level 3 came in we didn’t see any difference as we thought we could manage but things changed on the Friday evening following the intervention of the Minister and NPHET who sought extra restrictions for higher education.
“That meant we had to start over on a Friday evening to get things ready for the Monday morning. It was a bit hectic to say the least in terms of trying to communicate with both staff and students over the weekend. We had to put more online than we would have liked but we felt we had to make that move,” he said.
The Government had been hoped that many students – faced with remote learning for those initial weeks – would decide to remain at home, and not travel to accommodation in the cities and towns where their colleges were located.
However, many first years had already spent a week in Letterkenny as part of their induction.
“In fairness to the students they have been top class in terms of abiding by the rules, wearing masks and social distancing. It’s all been really positive from that perspective.
“The staff have also been outstanding. They had to rearrange and move lectures online at short notice and they did so without question,” he said.
When the virus first reached these shores earlier in the year LYIT didn’t close, but went online but the pandemic has shown the limitations of remote teaching, and how much is missed when students and teachers are not there together in person.
“This is totally different to the end of last year when we were finishing out an academic year. We’re now starting into one and it’s a big challenge that both staff and students have risen to it.
“Attendance online has been really strong from students. They’re engaging well and those who come on campus are following the rules to the letter.
“It’s difficult because, on average, we have 750 to 800 a day on campus. They’re staggered over the course of the day and we want to try to continue ‘normal’ practices as best we can. We’re in Level 3 for a few weeks now and will be until the Halloween break. We’ll assess the situation then to see if it can be improved.
“The Covid figures for Donegal remain a major concern for us though and we have to be ultra cautious from that perspective,” he said.
On a more positive note, the LYIT President confirmed that enrolment numbers continue to rise in Letterkenny.
“We’ve enrolled almost 3,500 full-time students. We’re delighted that people have shown faith in us and taken up their places this year. That’s what we were encouraging them to do. That figure includes almost 1,200 first year students – the highest registration that we’ve ever had,” he said.
“Our next objective is to make sure that everybody stays with us. We’ve got off to a good start. It will be more difficult for students as we enter into the dark winter nights but I hope that we can maintain that link with them,” he added.
The President of LYIT said that the Department deserve credit for properly funding the higher education sector. They’ve also provided supports around developing Covid-19 protocols and response plans.
“Our own estates staff here have also done a fantastic job in terms of getting the building ready and the students and staff have picked up the baton since then,” he said.
“There will be further bumps along the road no doubt and if we have to move to Level 4 we feel that LYIT is already working at that level, in terms of the preparations and plans that we have in place.
“Like everybody, we would like to see more certainty for the rest of the academic year after Halloween.
“We’re disappointed that we couldn’t have done better and had more face to face learning but we couldn’t have predicted that Level 3 would have come at us the way it did. We would love to see more students on campus, clubs and societies up and running and sporting infrastructures back in place. That has all stopped at the moment and, like the rest of society, we would like to get back to some sort of normality. That said, we have to be realistic in terms of health and safety which, at all times, remains our priority,” Mr Hannigan said.