Unlocking Education: Safe re-opening of campuses

September 02, 2021 2:30 PM

On-campus classes ceased overnight and were replaced by online and blended learning modules. But the bigger question is, can online classes replace the campus experience?

higher educationUniversities could limit occupancy in large lecture halls to allow for empty seats and rows between students, while enabling student’s virtual attendance.

By By Maj Gen A K Singh (Retd),

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended business as usual for colleges and universities. Not only have campuses shifted to remote learning almost overnight, but institutions are also suddenly grappling with uncertainty in the face of continuous change. On-campus classes ceased overnight and were replaced by online and blended learning modules. But the bigger question is, can online classes replace the campus experience?

Humans are social animals; we need contact and interaction. Lack of social interaction is creating a domino effect in students across the world and replicating a classroom through communication tools such as Microsoft Team and Zoom is not an effective way for digital learning. Digital learning also takes away another crucial aspect of campus life which is the opportunity to find new interests and learn new skills through clubs and societies. Campus not only enables a holistic experience but, through peer-to-peer interaction, it creates real-world experience and build confidence in learning.

Last year, UGC had issued guidelines for phased re-opening of universities. Residential Universities across India are gearing up to reopen by taking precautionary measures for the safety and wellbeing of the students as they prepare to return to their campus.

Key messages and actions: One must educate their students on the guidelines that need to be followed while on campus to ensure maximum safety. Wearing double masks, frequent use of sanitizer, and maintaining social distancing at each juncture. One must ensure that all students and staff members know the common signs of infection as a precautionary measure for early detection.

Staggered arrival: Students should arrive at 50% capacity in batches in the first phase, with a gap of a week between the batches which will ensure smooth handling and attending to each student’s needs. This will ensure that we eliminate the chances of contracting COVID-19 from new arrivals.

Ensure travel arrangements for students: As a University, it becomes our responsibility to ensure that students’ arrival arrangements are done as per their convenience. It is crucial to determine transport facilities with segregated seats for student’s safety. Upon arrival, one needs to make sure that students are carrying the necessary precautionary tests with them such as RT-PCR test.

Limited occupancy in lecture halls: Universities could limit occupancy in large lecture halls to allow for empty seats and rows between students, while enabling student’s virtual attendance. Recording faculty lectures for students to “attend” on their own, with smaller group classes in which professors provide help with homework assignments and consultation periods.

Continuous COVID-19 testing at campus: COVID testing can take place in 3 phases; one being pre-arrival test (within 72 hours prior to arrival), one on completion of self- quarantine period (12th day), followed by regular health.

Nutritious food to be served to students: Given the challenge of managing social distancing and constant sanitation in a large dining hall, universities should limit campus food service to delivery only at their respective rooms. Other approaches include scheduling students in shifts to avoid crowds, along with making arrangements for spaced seating in the dining halls to create more space between diners. Dining areas have been a major source of spread of infection and thus need very careful health monitoring of the mess staff, apart from other measures to prevent bunching up in any manner.

Sports and social activities: While COVID-19 may have restricted activities like swimming and team games, one can indulge in sports like badminton, tennis, table tennis and activities like running, yoga and walking which are non-contact games where it is easy to ensure appropriate social distancing.

Uncertainty will remain for colleges and universities for many months to come. To survive in these difficult times, leadership will need to prepare for numerous possible scenarios, seek creative solutions, and stay flexible. Safe re-opening for the education sector will require all of us to work together, employing the recommended best practices and maintaining safe daily habits to reduce the risk of exposure to COVID-19 as our students return to their second home.

(The author is Chief Operations Officer, NIIT University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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