Government advice at the beginning of October asserted that all counties would go to Level-3 of the National Health Plan until October 27th. Since late September, universities across the country have operated under Level-3 conditions – effectively closing UCC with minor exemptions. Under these restrictions, UCC Students’ Union understood their planned Virtual Freshers’ Week of Twitch-streamed DJ sets and online events as a safe way to connect the student body while apart. It has been an ongoing source of criticism and controversy in the local and national media as coronavirus cases continue to rise in Cork and across the country.
A letter from Interim President John O’Halloran to all students on Saturday September 26th appealed to UCCSU “to cancel or defer Virtual Freshers Week” for the reason that it may encourage “gatherings at a time when our country needs us to minimise our contacts.” The Interim President advised students to “not take actions now that could impact your futures,” detailing that any breach of public health guidelines would be met with sanctions up to and including expulsion.
UCCSU pressed ahead with their plans to digitise Freshers’ Week, and launched the first event on Monday September 28th – the original date for the return of students to campus. Beth O’Reilly, UCCSU Commercial and Fundraising Officer, told University Express that the request to cancel or defer the event “was clearly not made in the best interest of students, rather to placate the Residents’ Association that had been growing more and more frustrated with gatherings as the year has gone on, which I do empathise with.”
“We knew it was unfair to cancel a digital schedule of events,” Beth continued, “because of a tiny minority of students who weren’t following guidelines, so we decided to continue on with our schedule as planned.”
Coverage across national and local media from The Irish Times and RTÉ, to REDFM’s Neil Prendeville Show upon which UCCSU President Naoise Crowley later appeared, fronted the story of UCC Freshers’ Week with heavy criticism from local residents.
“There is no such thing as a virtual Freshers’ Week, or a virtual queue outside our local shop, or students ‘virtually’ passing us with slabs of beer in their arms, it is very real for us,” said Catherine Clancy, Chair of the Magazine Road Residents’ Association on Monday. “We saw it last night.” When levelled with this claim, UCCSU said on Twitter that no virtual events had taken place on the night in question, and spoke about the Residents’ Association releasing a statement which they said was “a flagrant misrepresentation of the truth” for its implication that Freshers’ events were being held in person, in breach of public health guidelines.
Appearing alongside Ms. Clancy on the Neil Prendeville Show on Cork’s RedFM, UCCSU President Naoise Crowley alleged that the Residents’ Association has “created hysteria” through their statement which implied a correlation between the virtual Freshers’ Week, anti-social behaviour and house parties in the area. Ms. Clancy purported the UCCSU President of a lack of empathy for the locality as she detailed her association’s experience of disruption and disorderly conduct.
When asked about the backlash the Students’ Union has received, the UCCSU Commercial and Fundraising Officer said that “it was definitely a rough week for all of us. There was a huge surge of aggressive and downright abusive emails from people,” many of which were of the understanding that the event was not virtual, but a deliberate flouting of health guidelines. “Thankfully the backlash eased off by the end of the week, and I think the fact that students were by and large incredibly well behaved helped to ease the negative perception of our events,” Beth said.
The Students’ Union has noted that as the week of digital Freshers’ progressed, the number of cases of house parties brought forward to Campus Watch decreased, with no association between gatherings and virtual events being found by the committee.
Eleven students have so far been temporarily suspended as a result of failures to comply with public health guidelines over the course of the week. The action taken against them is pending the outcome of a hearing before the Campus Watch Committee. Chaired by the Director of Student Experience at UCC, this committee handles complaints not already resolved by the informal procedures of the Student Rules.
Informal resolution of complaints can include the completion of the Bystander Intervention and the Alcohol Education Programme, the fulfillment of just one of these two and paying a charitable contribution of €25, or opting out of both programmes and paying a €75 fine. If the complaint should warrant it, a student risks expulsion.