As Europe is witnessing a new spike in COVID-19 cases, the student community across the region is rising up to demand safer conditions and greater resources. Opening of several universities and schools without adequate safety measures and protective equipment has put many students at risk of exposure to COVID-19. At many places, schools and universities are open despite rising cases and students being forced to isolate within lecture halls after fresh cases were reported in their campuses.
Deprived of any income and opportunities for temporary jobs, students are already in distress. The ‘’online gap’’ between the students who have gadgets for accessing online classes and those without it, as witnessed during the first lockdown, still exists and has widened in places due to government insensitivity. Desperate students across Europe have been forced to go out on protests to raise their concerns in the wake of another lockdown.
On October 24, Saturday, student/youth groups and trade unions protested across Italy, saying “we won’t pay for the crisis.” Demonstrations were held in the cities of Rome, Torino, Milan, Naples, Bologna, Viterbo, Taranto, Messina, Palermo, and others. Protesters demanded more resources to fight the pandemic. Progressive groups including the Communist Youth Front (FGC) and the Alternative Students Opposition (OSA) have been demanding free and safe public transport for students who are forced to attend schools and universities despite the fresh spike in cases. Groups like the Italian Communist Youth Federation (FGCI) have criticized the government for failing to take necessary steps to ensure safety of opening up schools and universities in Italy.
Vincenzo Colaprice from the Giovani Comunisti/e (Young Communists) in Italy told Peoples Dispatch, “the overcrowding of local public transport is a disaster that shows not only the inability of the government, which as of March should have planned measures for the resumption of the school year, but also the disastrous consequences of the policy of cutting fund transfers, liberalization, closure of factories that produced buses, and lack of investments in major works. In the five months till September, at the national level, only 30% of the additional places planned for intensive care units were realized; in Lombardy, only 21%.”
Colaprice added the latest government decree does not provide for school closures but requires 75% of high school classes to take place online. For students forced to go to schools and universities, overcrowded transport – already a problem before the pandemic – is an easy means for the spreading of the virus. The government plans to resolve the issue by allowing private companies to join public transport facilities in order to increase the available means of transport. As per Colaprice, the distance learning module which was implemented during the spring also failed. Over one million students were unable to access online classes due to inadequate internet connectivity and lack of supporting infrastructure. Further, for some age groups, as in the case of elementary school students, distance learning proved to slow down learning and created problems in preparing for the end-of-year exams.
Colaprice said that immediate funding for public schools to reduce the number of pupils per class and the consequent hiring of necessary staff is needed. Plans should be in place for regularizing temporary staff and school construction. “It is unacceptable for us to continue to have classes with more than 20 or 30 students, a problem that has been known since before the pandemic and which is now becoming problematic with COVID-19,” he said.
Meanwhile, the student community in France, under the leadership of the Union of Communist Students (UEC), has intensified the campaign for student income during the pandemic. On October 25, the national conference of the UEC resolved to fight for a mandatory income for students. Their petition supporting the motion for student income, which was launched by the communist deputies in the French parliament, has gathered over 5,000 signatures. The UEC has said, “to respond to the student precariousness which was once again highlighted during the crisis, let’s set up a student income. But not out of charity: because to study is to work. This income must recognize the usefulness of studies and be financed by Social Security.”
With Belgium also witnessing a new spike in case, a Code Red alert has been invoked in many colleges and universities. Physical classes have been suspended, with a shift to online classes. To highlight the concerns of students at this juncture, leader of the Comac Students group, Octave Daube, wrote an open letter to minister of higher education Valérie Glatigny on October 24. In the letter, Daube inquired about the government’s actions for providing access to online classes to all students in the country as the first lock down had exposed the wide inequalities that exist among students. Daube also highlighted that almost a quarter of all students have to work to be able to study. Now, without any inflow of money, they are simply not able to continue their studies, he said.
In Austria, as entrance exams to various universities were cancelled due to COVID-19, the Communist Students Association (KSV), on October 23, demanded the universities to refund the exam fees paid by the students. KSV stated, “During the Corona crisis, the financial situation of many Austrian students dramatically deteriorated: countless students lost their side jobs and tuition fees were not refunded. Students therefore often depend on every possible financial relief, especially in the present situation.”
On October 9, students and teachers, along with parents, organized massive mobilizations in Athens and other Greek cities, demanding safer classrooms in the time of the pandemic. The security forces’ attempt to repress the rally in Athens with brute force courted widespread criticism and provoked students to organize more mobilizations across Greece.
Students across the UK have also been experiencing hardship amid a new wave of infections that have struck the universities. The inability of the government to ensure protection and the insensitivity of university authorities towards taking appropriate decisions has even led to students being forced to isolate inside lecture halls on campuses. Organizations including the Young Communist League (YCL-Britain), National Union of Students (NUS), and University and College Union (UCU) have demanded strong intervention from the government to tackle this criss.
Already devastated by the pandemic and the first round of lockdowns, students and youths across Europe, like every other section of the society, are at risk. The profit motive of crony capitalism and the complicity of governments is adding to woes of the students whose dreams of securing their degrees and jobs have been shattered and who face an uncertain future.