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COVID-19 Watch: What Lies Ahead For the Academic Community

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We are currently witnessing the effects of the COVID-19 crisis. It’s horrifying, to say the least, and nobody knows when would it end.

The impact to the global economy is devastating. Many businesses in most affected countries have shut down (hopefully temporarily). There are shops and stores where people buy their basic needs that remain open for the few who are brave enough to venture out of their homes. But people nowadays would rather order whatever they need online. For some kinds of jobs, workers were asked to “work from home.”  Even in countries where there are no reported cases of contagion, business activities are negatively affected. Consequently, stock markets tumbled in recent days.

The societal implications are just as bad. The COVID-19 scare disrupted the normal flow of people’s lives and made social distancing a norm. There is less social interactions nowadays. Authorities have advised people to either stay at home or limit their movement for them not to get infected, or not to infect others in the event that they carry the virus without them knowing. People were told also to strictly  avoid mass gatherings and religious activities.

People have no choice but to heed and cooperate. As a result, streets and public parks are empty even in some areas where there are no reported cases of infections. Church organizations in countries like China, South Korea, Japan, Italy, and Iran where there are numerous cases of infections either volunteered (or were forced by their governments) not to hold activities for the meantime in order to prevent their members from congregating and possibly spread the virus if any of them happens to have been infected.

What about in the academe?

Like in the churches and business establishments, schools are where people gather, the majority of which, of course, are students.

There is no way that the operation of schools can be totally stopped (unless perhaps in an extreme situation when public safety so requires). It can be delayed for  a limited period of time, but eventually students will have to be sent back to school. Curriculums are time bound so schools have to reopen.

Education ministries of affected countries (like here in South Korea) have already postponed the opening of classes. But eventually schools would reopen. When finally they do (open), how ready are the school authorities?

Administrators of schools have their hands full. They ought to take a proactive stance. They need to prepare a COVID-19 strategy.

Protocols designed to prevent infection and transmission of the disease should be in place before the students, the academic and non-academic employees, and school officials return to the campus. Just a single infection would cause a shutdown of school operations for a certain period of time. That would definitely disrupt the school calendar and shake the confidence of parents who might, at the extreme, no longer allow their children to return to school. So, it’s a must that all the necessary precautions should be in place.

Creating protocols is easy. The difficult part is the implementation. It would entail the cooperation of everybody in the campus. As it is, asking young people to tow the line is a very tricky business. And that is what would make the implementation of protocols a real challenge.

There is one item in the students’ demographic profile school authorities should pay attention to when creating protocols –  geographical origin. There are areas (in particular countries, and particular areas in those countries) affected by the COVID-19. Given the fact that (according to experts) the virus have an incubation period (2 weeks or even more)  before symptoms manifest,  what is the assurance that  students returning to school from the affected areas who appear to be healthy are not carrying the virus unknowingly? How would school policy makers deal with this? This is particularly tricky in the case of universities where students come from different parts of a particular country, not unlike in basic education institutions (elementary and high schools) whose enrolees would normally come only from a limited geographical area. There are universities too with students coming from foreign countries. And that thickens the plot.

Even the geographical origins of the academic and non-academic employees of schools – particularly the teachers – must be considered in the creation of protocols for the reopening of classes. They too could appear and feel healthy but unbeknownst to them, they already have the virus in their bodies.

Everybody in the campus must be asked to disclose their travel history, domestic and international. They ought to self-quarantine for two weeks before entering the campus had they traveled in any area/country with reported cases of infections.

Whatever protocols school authorities implement in response to COVID-19 contagion, all stakeholders – students and their parents, employees, and school officials themselves – need to embrace and understand. Nobody should take offense. On their part, school authorities need to ensure that the guidelines and policies they formulate are reasonable and not discriminatory or racist in any way.

It is possible that in the process of implementing new guidelines and policies designed to prevent the virus from spreading in the campus, certain basic rights of individuals might be affected. These are no ordinary times. Thus, utmost cooperation and understanding of everybody in the campus are needed. These guidelines and policies are certainly transitory in character. They will die a natural death when the COVID-19 crisis is over.

Academic freedom is not under threat because of the virus. There is, however, a possibility that faculty members maybe asked to deliver instruction online in order to limit the  movement  of both students and teachers or avoid direct contact. This would require teachers to redesign their course syllabus so  learning could take place even if the students are confined in their respective homes. Online learning is not difficult to do given present technological advancements. Actually, it is not something new. To this scheme, the teachers could not invoke their right to determine how should they deliver instruction and say no. If the reason for a possible disagreement from teachers is their inability to use technology then they (the teachers) have (and would be) a problem.

The challenge now for the academic community is to look for other methods to achieve course objectives. Desperate times call for desperate measures and given the current situation educators need to think of alternative ways to make education work. There are existing distance learning methods that could be considered.

With the COVID-19 continuing its havoc, expect a different campus when classes resume. The atmosphere will be different. It’s not a question of what could be done but what must be done. Everybody must be required to enter the campus through specific entry points so their body temperature could be checked, vehicles entering the school must be sprayed with disinfectants, thermal scanners must be installed at entry points in the campus, a campus-wide fumigation must be done at least once a week, there must be sanitizers in the entrances and exits of buildings and of individual offices and classrooms, and everybody in the campus, especially the students and teachers in the classrooms must be required to wear face masks at all times.

School authorities must also get the assurance from suppliers of any products  that not a single contaminated item would  enter the campus. Even the entry of food from restaurants around school campuses must be regulated. School policy makers should not leave no stone unturned. As Benjamin Franklin said,  “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

More importantly, everybody in the campus must be taught (and constantly reminded of) the precautionary measures for them not to get infected. Health personnel must be trained how to deal with COVID-19 cases if and when – God forbid – they occur.

THE COVID-19 SCARE

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Yesterday (February 26th), on my way to Haemi-myeon, I bumped into a colleague – a foreign English professor like me. We were about to do a “fist bump” but realizing that our hands were exposed, I jokingly suggested that we do an “elbow bump” instead. He agreed and we both laughed at what we did. A “fist bump” is safer than a handshake (according to research studies) but with the dreaded COVID-19  possibly clinging in somebody else’s skin and ready to jump into ours upon contact, then the “elbow bump” is a safer alternative.

A few days earlier, I had a friend who was obviously a little bit iffy meeting me in person him knowing that I just traveled all the way from the Philippines and landed at Incheon international airport. I just could not tell him that the feeling was mutual because I was not sure where he traveled around Korea the past weeks. Even if he did not travel, I don’t know who were the people he came in contact with and were they not infected by the virus.  That day I embraced the present reality – that because of the COVID-19, people around us, colleagues or not, friends or not, loved ones or not related to us, need to take all the necessary precautions – and we should not take offense.

But we don’t need to be scared, to the point of becoming indifferent and paranoid. Neither should this COVID-19 scare drive us to racism. We just have to be cautious and cooperate with (and follow instructions given by) authorities who have been doing their best to control the contagion.

While taking my vacation in the Philippines, I closely monitored COVID-19 cases, not only there but  also here in what I consider my second home – South Korea. I flew out of South Korea through Incheon Airport on the 26th of January for my winter break and if I remember correctly, there were only around 3 confirmed cases in the country at that time. When I checked for updates on January 28th, there were already 4. Meanwhile, in the Philippines, as of the same date,  there was only one confirmed case – not a Filipino citizen though but a 38-year-old Chinese woman from the reported origin of the virus – Wuhan, China.

There are thousands of Chinese in the Philippines and nobody knows how many of them came from (or might have travelled to) Wuhan when the virus was still silently wreaking havoc. There could also be Filipinos, or foreigners, who might have traveled to China who could possibly be carrying the virus without them knowing and were roaming around my country. Scared by these possibilities, I decided to cancel a road trip I was planning to have with family and friends. Also, I intentionally did not contact friends I promised to see during my vacation. Reason – I wasn’t aware of their travel history. Better safe than sorry.   Conversely, that was also beneficial to them, I passed through two airports, Incheon and Manila, and have mingled with hundreds of foreigners in the process. I was not sure then if I did not get infected. Thankfully, I was not.

By the 30th of January, more cases of COVID-19 infections were reported here in South Korea. The following day (31st of January), when there was a dramatic increase of confirmed cases of infections, the university (where I am currently employed) cancelled the graduation ceremonies that was supposedly scheduled for February 21st. That was a very good decision. It was for the best interest of everybody that our university did so. I have several PhD students, one of them was my dissertation advisee, who were supposed to formally receive their diplomas that day. They have long waited for that to happen and they were saddened that because of the COVID -19 scare, it was cancelled. They  said that there is nothing they could do about it and besides, they themselves were also hesitant to participate in the graduation ceremonies had it pushed through as scheduled because a lot of people coming from different parts of South Korea (including those with confirmed cases of infections) would be coming and there would be a lot of foreign students (and possibly their families too) attending too, some of them coming from China.

On February 1st, there in the Philippines, the first COVID-19 death outside of China, happened. On February 5th, the third case was reported bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 3. All those reported infected were Chinese. There was no community transmission in the Philippines though. It was a different case here in South Korea where more and more cases were reported during the first week of February even among people who have no travel history to China. This prompted our university officials to move the opening of the Spring Semester to March 16th. Another wise move.

When I received the email stating that the opening of School Year- 2020 would be delayed for 2 weeks, I contemplated about extending my vacation in the Philippines so I could stay longer  with my family. But I decided not to because should the COVID-19 problem in South Korea gets worse, there was a possibility then that the Philippine government would not allow flights to and from this country, the way it did to flights to Macau, Hongkong, China, and Taiwan.

So, as scheduled, I flew back to South Korea (from the Philippines) on February 19th. The previous day, the 31st COVID-19 case was reported. When I got settled in my apartment the following day (February 20th) and checked the internet for updates on the virus, I was shocked to find out that cases of infections have breached the century mark. More infections and deaths related to the virus were reported in the next couple of days prompting me to take all the necessary precautions.

As of today (February 27th) there are already 1,766 confirmed cases of COVID-19 infections and 13 deaths here in South Korea. Reports identified Daegu City and the neighboring province of Gyeongsangbuk as the regions in South Korea that were hardest hit by the virus. The vast majority of infections took place in the said places.

I have been back here (in South Korea) for a week now but I have yet to enter our university campus. I need to complete the 14-day mandatory self-quarantine period before I do so. I am hoping that all foreigners – students and workers – who traveled overseas would do the same.

I have not ventured out of my “cave” much the past 7 days except when I had to buy food and other supplies (thrice that I have done so) and eat in a restaurant. Only twice so far that I visited my favorite restaurant. That’s how I restricted my movement  so far, not because I am scared but to ensure that I don’t get infected, or I don’t infect other people in case I am already carrying the virus and I just don’t know.

The COVID-19 scare clearly disrupted my routine. I could not go to the gym in our campus to do my regular workout. I have also avoided walking around and hiking in my favorite spots around here. For the meantime, I am making do with the stationary bike and some weights in my apartment.

Thankfully, technology can provide the entertainment I need. Even if I could not go to a nearby city (Seosan-si) to watch movies, there are plenty of them available in my favorite websites.

With me hesitant to venture beyond the door of my pad, I have more time to create contents for my website, read, write, and meditate.

As always, the Facebook messenger and Skype, allow me to be in touch with my loved ones through “video call” almost 24/7.

I am confident that humans can overcome the onslaught of the COVID-19. It’s just a matter of time. The homo sapiens is a resilient species.

God’s love and mercy towards humanity never end. Sooner or later, the COVID-19 scare will be a thing of the past.

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