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New semester – new challenges

Walking up the hill on the KTH Campus on the first days of the autumn semester is, as usual, really fun. THS (Union for Technology Students) reception of our new students is in full swing. Even so, signs and plexiglass screens at the reception desks signal that nothing is as usual. We warmly welcome you all to a new semester where KTH is building a long-term sustainable way of working by combining a digital and a physical presence.

In the spring, we were suddenly faced with an entirely new situation and were forced to rethink the way we work in a very short space of time. Many people worked extremely hard to resolve this and most of our students and personnel had a new reality to become familiar with, where work and learning were done remotely. Many people probably hoped, as I did, that by autumn everything would be back to normal again and when the government announced their decision to reopen universities and colleges, we could all breathe out again. However, this is not yet really the case, even if developments in Sweden are much brighter right now.

Many people believe they possess  the right solution to prevent the spread of infection. We are swamped by wise advice and points of view on a daily basis. KTH is making the modifications appropriate for KTH in particular, based on the Public Health Agency of Sweden (FMH) recommendations . KTH is a university with a very specific operation. What is appropriate for another public authority or a company is quite simply not appropriate for a university. For example, take one of our main assignments, namely education. Right now, it is freshers weeks for around 3,500 new students. University study will be completely new for many of them, and we need to give all our new students the very best opportunities to start their studies while at the same time trying to ensure that KTH does not contribute to an increase in the spread of infection. It won’t be easy but we are going to manage.

When FHM on 30 July encouraged people to continue to work from home, they also reiterated that it is up to the employer and employee together, to decide if working from home is possible. The biggest concern right now according to FHM is not the spread of infection per se, which remains at a low and stable level, but what will happen with the infection rate when many people return to schools and workplaces. The biggest worry is crowding on public transport. Large gatherings of people at parties for example, are another area of concern. Our individual responsibility to maintain a social distance and practise good hand hygiene is incredibly important.

Even more important, FHM reiterated the consequences that can arise in the wake of being isolated at home for long periods without the opportunity to meet work colleagues or study buddies. To minimise these consequences in particular, KTH managers and their employees are together planning how a physical and digital presence respectively in the workplace can be organised for all employees. All activities are to be planned such that peak time travel is avoided and to avoid everyone being on site at the same time.

The situation for KTH students is that teaching will be a mix of physical and digital elements. A higher proportion of physical attendance will be prioritised for freshers and new international and national masters students in particular. Great care and consideration have been given to enable lab sessions to be performed without the risk of spreading infection.

I am convinced that with joint efforts we will get through this period and find ways forward. It will not be easy, but it will work. We will emerge from this period with new lessons learnt, insights and crucial research in our locker. As an added bonus, we will have made a rapid stride forward in optimising digital solutions.