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.