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Vienna students swap lecture halls for pews

Throughout the day, hushed voices fill Vienna’s Votivkirche church, but not in prayer: the coronavirus pandemic has led to its tall, neo-Gothic spires housing a study hall for university students. “It’s very cool to study in the Votivkirche, but it’s very cold,” 19-year-old Mia Bardone, who is studying to be a teacher, said on Thursday as she read old German poetry in the light streaming through the church’s stained-glass windows.

To keep its roughly 90,000 students safe from contracting COVID-19 and to adhere to social distance rules, like many educational institutions the University of Vienna has had to adapt its teaching methods — many lectures are now taught online. Over the summer, faculty staff came up with the idea of turning the nearby Votivkirche into a study hall.

Students sitting on the pews, wearing protective face masks and enjoying the quiet. Source: Joe Klamar/AFP

“It’s a quiet space for learning and studying inside the church, and we had this idea because it was clear that our lecture hall capacities are too small,” says Christa Schnabl, one of the university’s vice-rectors. She explains that only 40 to 50 percent of the university’s space can be used when social distancing rules are enforced.

The 19th-century Catholic church, which has been used for events like concerts in the past, was happy to help out, Schnabl said. Over the summer, portable toilets, wireless internet connections and additional electricity plugs were installed to accommodate the students.

“Of course in the evenings when there is mass, the church isn’t open for this purpose anymore,” Schnabl said. The university is now assessing how well students use the church, but initial feedback is positive.

David, a sociology student from Ireland, studying at the Votive Church in Vienna Source: Joe Klamar/AFP

“I’m too distracted at home, and I keep running to the fridge,” Tobias Ofner, a 19-year-old studying to become an English and history teacher said while sitting in one of the pews, his laptop resting on his lap. “Studying in general is a bit harder with the pandemic because most of it is online,” Ofner said in a hushed voice. “But here, it’s really great because it’s quiet and that makes for a great atmosphere to study,” he said.

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