Discussing COVID-19 with member of parliament Jan Paternotte

Last week The Estimator interviewed Jan Paternotte, member of the House of Representatives of The Netherlands (de Tweede Kamer). Specialising in Education, he represents the party Democrats 66. We discussed reopening universities, the curfew, financial compensations for students and much more.  

We always like to start off with a personal question: how has the corona crisis affected your life? What is your perspective on it?

Well a lot of my life is now online, it is as if I am constantly looking at a screen. Besides that, my daughter of four years old would have gone to school for the first time this year, but now she couldn’t. Luckily, since I’m a member of the House of Representatives she was able to go to daycare on occasion, though that is definitely a whole other experience. I’ll sometimes ask her if she knows what corona is and she’ll say it means that you cannot see grandma and grandpa for a long time. But besides that, I don’t think the biggest impact is on people of my age group. I have my family and my home so in the end I feel like I can’t complain. That’s why I have been concerning myself so much with the situation students are in right now, I see too many young people suffering under these circumstances.

As you said, there’s definitely certain age groups that have been more affected than others, the government has also announced that we will be staying in this lockdown until March. Can we assume that after that everything will start going back to normal again, or are we potentially risking another lockdown?

I’m hoping that we can start decreasing the amount of restrictions, spring is also coming soon after that so generally it will become a whole lot warmer and we can start going outside more. People can open their windows and have better ventilation. Last year we saw that by June the virus was almost gone. That’s what we hope for of course, but the RIVM (the National Institute for Public Health and Environment) warns us that the new British variant could cause a new peak in March. If that’s the case, then we definitely have a problem since vaccinations are not nearly going fast enough to prevent this from happening.

Right, so there are still certain risks that we face exiting the lockdown? 

I think that we should start coming up with other solutions besides fully exiting the lockdown. To prevent for example that all students will just be sitting at home until the summer. There have been very little solutions for students at universities and graduate schools, who have barely visited their campuses for nearly an entire year. Recently for example, we have been conducting experiments in Groningen. Students would take a PCR test on campus before going in to write their exams. We should at least give universities the chance to open their lecture halls as long as enough distance is insured. Currently many campuses are closed because they are afraid that people will get corona solely from crossing paths in the hallway. But that is already happening in every supermarket, so I find it peculiar that supermarkets are treated so differently from universities.

I think you definitely have a point there. Many of our students feel that it is unfair how elementary schools have opened back up, while keeping distance is seemingly much easier on any university campus than in a classroom full of children. So why keep them closed?

Well I personally think that the universities should indeed look at what is possible and make use of their space. This could mean that lectures will stay online, but tutorials take place on campus. I have talked to many students about this and they all said they wouldn’t mind wearing a mask, if it meant being able to get out of your room and go to campus once in a while. I would say start listening to these students and just keep distance, wear masks and potentially even check people’s temperatures. Besides all that we can now use PCR tests. There has been research showing that, while it might help contain the virus, other things concerning your health will deteriorate due to staying inside. Students’ lives right now consist of their bed, their desk and food with the occasional bathroom break in between. ‘Eat, sleep, zoom, repeat’ is what I call it.

That’s a fairly accurate description of student life right now. Besides that there is a curfew that will stay in place until at least the second of March. This was the topic of many discussions lately. What is your own take on this? Is 21:00 not a bit too early if we look at neighbouring countries?

Our medical advisors repeatedly warn us about the British variant and say that this could cause such a big problem that this rule is absolutely necessary. For it to be effective the latest hour is 21 o’clock, since you really want people to divert from visiting each other at night. At home is generally where the virus spreads the most. Currently there is not yet any research showing if this curfew is effective, and of course we did stay critical in this matter, but if our professional medical advisors tell us that we have to prevent hospitals from overflowing then we do so. I also think that the curfew would be much more widely accepted if it would lead us to, for example, reopening schools. We are now talking about universities, but also high school students are having a hard time staying home all day.

You talked about being advised by professionals concerning these measures. Preferably we would all like the virus to spread as little as possible and for there to be but a few deaths, but we cannot forget that a lockdown weighs heavily on the country as well. Not only economically speaking but also socially and educationally. What were some of the parameters which were taken into account when deciding to prolong this lockdown?

Well, we saw how the situation in the United Kingdom escalated very quickly and how ambulances were standing in line. People who would call but could not be helped because the hospitals in London were full. Our outbreak management team, consisting of different virologists and epidemiologists, told us that if we didn’t immediately take action we would go in that same direction. In the period right before our lockdown you could already see the exponential rise in the amount of infections. Some argue that students usually do not become very sick, but this strain is so aggressive that it could cause many more infections and thus overflow our hospitals. That way not only people who have corona but also others in need of care would not be able to get that anymore. That is not something we would want to see here. So yes I am definitely all for this extra safety, although I do think that we could handle it a lot better. 

Recently the amount of positive tests a day has also been declining. Is there a certain target number at which we could potentially lift this national lockdown? What would that number be?

Well the amount of infections should be below 2000 a day, the percentage of positive tests should also decrease to below about 5% and the amount of hospitalizations to 10 a day. The problem now is that this number is not representative since many testing appointments had to be moved back due to the snow. However, I am hopeful that the numbers will continue declining with spring coming up, and especially since the elderly will have been vaccinated soon. Seventy year olds are getting vaccinated in March and that will already make a big difference in our hospitals.

Then more of a personal, but recurring question from our students. The Erasmus University has recently decided on a second camera that will be placed behind you during the exam. There have been very many discussions surrounding this. Many students find that this second camera is unnecessary, an invasion of their privacy and placing it would take up valuable time.

I do think that this, and also the fact that going to the bathroom is not allowed, is a bit extreme. There’s a certain degree to which you would want to project organized distrust onto students. Of course I can see this being a last resort for the university, but I also speak to many graduate schools who choose to use proctoring as little as possible. They have tried to find other options such as open book exams. I would encourage other universities and graduate schools to do the same.

Our next question concerns the BSA, which as you know has recently been lowered by 10 to 15 percent all throughout The Netherlands. How relevant would you say that this is? We’ve seen many students having a hard time mentally due to the lockdown, but has there been a significant study delay?  

It really depends, for instance there are students who study a lot more now since there is not much else to do. On the other hand however, there have been many students who feel like they hit a wall and who have a hard time concentrating. The difference lies in whether you learn through interaction or not. Besides that, having the pressure of the BSA on you after an already stressful and completely different year, did not seem fair. So I am really glad that we have been able to lower this. Eventually of course the BSA will be achieved, but now you get more time. In retrospect it is not much different from the other things that we have been doing, subsidizing wages to make sure that companies stay afloat and even deferral of payments in many instances. So why not do the same for students?

Earlier we also talked a bit about reopening the university campuses. What are some of the measures that we could be expecting once this happens?

I recently talked to the dean of the Hogeschool Rotterdam about this and he listed many solutions like screens, stickers, distance and making people wear masks. Not only going into the building, but potentially also in lecture halls. Many students are ready to follow all of these guidelines if that means being able to go to campus once in a while. We could handle this reopening in phases; the first step could be making use of all the lecture halls, the second would give universities more room to up their capacity and a third step could imply letting the practical education do what is necessary starting May. We can never be sure that there will not be another outbreak preventing us from reopening, but thinking that there will be no on-campus learning until this summer is very depressing.

Then we have arrived at the last question for you, one that was once again highly requested by our students. Will there be some sort of financial compensation, relating to the student loan system? Many feel like they have wasted money on rent and also tuition since they never actually got to go to campus.

Currently, what people, who have been in the loan system, get is a study voucher worth 2000 euros. They can use this voucher to further educate themselves once they are over the age of 27. We want to double this amount of money, give people the option to take it off of their student debt and if they have no debt, the option to claim this money. The total compensation would be a bit over 4000 euros. We are talking about a lot of students in debt, making it very justified, but also a lot of money that would have to be set aside for this. 


We would like to thank Jan Paternotte once again for doing this interview, and all of the students who submitted their questions. 


Disclaimer: The Estimator does not in any way endorse the views of Mr. Jan Paternotte or Democrats 66. 

This interview was conducted in Dutch by Tessa De Weser and translated to English. If you have any questions/suggestions, don't hesitate to comment below. 

Background image: Sebastiaan ter Burg [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

About this article

Written by:
  • Tessa De Weser
| Published on: Feb 18, 2021