Strategy for reopening public universities during Covid-19 pandemic
The higher education sector in Bangladesh goes hand in hand with every other sector in facing a significant challenge due to COVID-19 Pandemic. All public universities virtually become ghost towns, as they are closed since late March, 2020 as a measure to contain the spread of the COVID-19. However, there is no ray of hope reopening the universities soon as the pandemic situation in Bangladesh is yet to be under control. Hence, the future of our top students is not only getting to be uncertain but also has far-reaching economic and societal consequences. In general, top meritorious students of our country are choosing to study in public universities as they are offered inexpensive and high-quality education.
Currently, approximately 2.5 lac students are studying in the 46 public universities around the country. Most of these students come from rural areas with the lower-middle class to poor economic backgrounds. Irrespective of few exceptions, most of them expect to graduate as soon as possible so that they can enter the job markets in order to support their family. Any unexpected closure of the university lingers their academic life as well as causes serious economic hardship and mental trauma. The current pandemic related closure already creates 6 months to 1-year academic session jam.
Unfortunately, no one knows for sure when the situation will be as before. Therefore, in this situation, we have two alternatives to save the academic session. One is starting distance learning, and the other is physically reopening the universities as early as possible. To ensure quality education for all enrolled students, the first option is not viable at least in our opinion. Because we have already mentioned that most of the students have a lower-income background. The current pandemic makes their situation from bad to worse. It is quite impossible to get an uninterrupted timely internet connection at their local place in most of the cases. More importantly, for physical, biological, medical, and engineering students, practical courses are must and very important for producing quality graduates.
Moreover, the practical courses cannot be conducted through online classes. We need to be very clear that the so-called virtual learning cannot meet the quality of physical learning, especially in our country, although few universities in the first-world countries have started this process cautiously. Because our socio-economic environment is completely different from them.
Therefore, we have only one remaining option that is physically reopening the university for students as quickly as possible. To do that, all universities must need to prepare an appropriate and in-depth strategy right now. This strategy needs to be in place until the pandemic situation is over or a vaccine is developed. Remember, this strategic plan will need to be developed uniquely for each university depending on their category, location, and available resources. Here we are outlining some key aspects in general that need to be considered in the preparation of the strategy by keeping in mind the social distancing, health safety, and hygienic rules relevant for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Let's focus first on the reopening of the academic activities. Every university has several disciplines and under each discipline there are numbers of subjects. Our universities are generally overcrowded, and if we reopen the regular academic activities as before, the campus will be an ideal hotspot for COVID-19. To overcome this difficulty, we can cluster the disciplines and allocated them 1 or 2 days a week for academic activities. For example, consider a general university where physical, biological, social, business, and arts and humanities disciplines as well as different institutes are present. We can allocate 2 days for physical science, 2 days for biological science, 1 day for business, and 1 day for social, and art and humanities disciplines. Depending on academic relevancy, institutes can be linked with relevant disciplines. If the university keeps open from 9 am to 5 pm and 6 days in a week, we think it will be enough to run the academic activities to a certain level. Science disciplines need 2 days as they have a large number of theoretical and practical courses. The class routines need to be adjusted accordingly and all faculty members must need to cooperate to run this strategy efficiently. This fixed day allocation system for each discipline will reduce the presence of students, faculty members, and staff significantly on the campus for a given day, and therefore, it will be possible to uphold the COVID-19 related guidelines.
Alternatively, university authority can even cluster the departments across the disciplines for a given day. This is required when one academic building house a number of departments of a single discipline. In such cases, taking classes on the same day will cause an overcrowding situation in that building. The clustering strategy for the discipline or departments across the disciplines will also significantly reduce the stress on the transport system of the university for the faculty members, students, and staff who are living off-campus.
As only relevant teachers, students and staff will travel on a given day, they at least will be able to maintain some social distancing during travelling. Moreover, the clustering strategy will also reduce the pressure on sitting arrangement at the central library, activities in the administrative buildings, banking office, and other relevant office premises.
Furthermore, university central administration needs to take all necessary measures to better equip the university medical centres. This includes arranging necessary medicine, increasing available oxygen facilities, and the number of beds. The ambulance facilities must ensure for 24/7. Universities should arrange COVID-19 testing facilities so that they can do enough testing of students and staff in order to detect infection, and to isolate and quarantine if necessary. Most of the universities, specifically the old universities have the facilities and resources for that. For example, the authority can ask the relevant departments with laboratory facilities to produce the required volume of hand sanitizers and disinfectants for that campus, which is an added advantage.
Each university needs to allocate a building with proper facilities within the campus to establish as an isolation centre for suspected COVID patients. It is obligatory to ensure that all teachers, students, and staffs have to wear face masks. The proctor office needs to be more vigilant so that outsiders cannot enter the campus unless it is very urgent. The central administration can arrange a rigorous awareness campaign among teachers, students, and staffs about the COVID-19 pandemic and its related issues. Emergency notice should serve to all political, cultural, and social organizations within the campus to stop all activities that can violate the social distancing rule.
Finally, the administration must allocate proper resources to all concerned offices within the campus for the safety of the teachers, students, and staffs. Only the aforementioned strategic plan can ensure the safe reopening of our universities and other educational institutions physically during this pandemic related new normal time.
Md Sakawat Hossain is a Professor in the Department of Geological Sciences of Jahangirnagar University and
Dr Samsad Afrin Himi is an Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology of Jagannath University