With Covid, there is no easing on campus

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Undertaking this gigantic task requires a comprehensive strategy

We want to see our universities come to life with the chatter and laughter of students, like Bottola at Dhaka University, but not in a haphazard way that jeopardizes their lives and their learning. File photo: Hasan Mahmud Prottoy

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We want to see our universities come to life with the chatter and laughter of students, like Bottola at Dhaka University, but not in a haphazard way that jeopardizes their lives and their learning. File photo: Hasan Mahmud Prottoy

It’s as refreshing as watching urban forestry flowers in bloom or roadside plants twinkle after a downpour.

Children in uniform on their way to their schools brought back memories of a life that stood still for over 18 months. A little boy with a school bag and water bottle, hugging his father on a motorbike, a girl sleeping in her mother’s arms under the hood of a rickshaw, or a caregiver giving the breakfast to a restless kid in a high speed car, all this is a morning sight that we missed very much. Over the past year and a half my niece has grown up to be a teenager; her teacher could barely recognize her when she returned to school. It was a pretty emotional meeting, from what I hear.

Institutions are beginning to teem with life. The tiny masks worn by our young people, however, remind us that all is not normal. And to minimize the physical stay on the premises, many schools offer half of their courses online. Hybrid learning is the new absolute.

The Education Ministry has always maintained that they will not reopen schools unless the infection rate drops below 10 percent, adding that they would not hesitate to close if there was the slightest sign of a viral spike. It is a prudent decision. Parents, too, are cautious, as the low participation in schools suggests. If the rise and fall of the viral curve is any indicator – this too, based only on those who volunteered to be tested – the caution of students and their parents is understandable as well. They need full assurance that their children will be in a safe environment. The reality is that we are far from an ideal situation where we can claim normalcy.

At my university, ULAB, we conducted a survey to assess vaccine status as well as student preference for online / in-person classes. While most of our teachers and staff are vaccinated, only a third of our students have been able to receive the vaccines. The lack of national identity cards seems to be an obstacle; it was only recently that the option of birth certificates and a dedicated link for university students was introduced. Priorities were given to medical students and public universities with residential dormitories; private universities like ours have not made the cut. If our students manage to take advantage of this recently offered window of opportunity, we would expect two-thirds of our students to receive at least one dose of the vaccine by the end of this month, when we are supposed to resume opposite. to face. learning.

The rate of being infected after two doses throws another key in the works. There is a three-level distribution among our students: 39.7% are comfortable in continuing online courses, 33% wish to return to physical classrooms, while 27.3% have no preferences. Given the adversity expressed against online education, it is interesting to see how a centuries-old classroom education system can undergo a serious overhaul with the advent of the new.

Another interesting finding from the survey was that almost all students would move to Dhaka once the campus reopened, meaning that even if we adopt a hybrid or mixed model, our students from outside Dhaka (around 25%) would like to move. This is understandable because universities are required to organize exams and laboratory courses in a physical setting.

There is no clear cut solution to the imbroglio we face. Adopting a hybrid model – where teachers will broadcast lessons with half of their students in the classroom, the other half at home – will require massive investment. All classes will need high-resolution cameras and microphones, and teachers will need to have basic training to address two different audiences at the same time. Such a model will allow university administrations to control the crowd: for example, odd numbers attending Sunday slots, while even numbers entering on Tuesday.

This is an example of a hybrid model where face-to-face and online activities are integrated. In a blended learning model, course sessions take place primarily in traditional classrooms with the online platforms used for activities, lesson sharing, and assessment. A few weeks before the reopening, government directives for universities have proved to be very flexible. He asked the academic council and the union concerned to decide on the teaching methods.

As the split in our investigation shows, it is unlikely that there will be consensus on the situation. We will need decisive action. The government’s immunization program is directly linked to campus visitation policies. For example, as an institution, can we declare a campus policy that says “no vaccine, no entry”? We submitted the list of our registered students in February, but it was not until last week that we had a university vaccination service set up. We cannot prohibit students from entering their campus. We can always approve basic health protocols, such as wearing masks, using disinfectants, checking temperature, circulating air in classrooms, and disinfecting public places. Again, who will bear these additional expenses? What will be our protocol for a “panic stop” if there is an increase in the number of infections? We have already seen a similar example in the United States.

The main challenge in reopening our institutions and adapting to a new model is to ensure that all of our students have the same experience. We cannot have one set of teaching / learning experiences or assessments for one group of students, while another set of experiences for others. How can we ensure that, outside our protected area, students travel with similar health and safety standards? The public bus a student travels in may not have the luxury of our spaced classrooms. How well can we control our students in maintaining health protocols? Is it a bangla idiom reminder of a tight bundle with a loose knot?

I think a comprehensive strategy is needed. Leaving it to the local authority or agency will mean that each institution will set its own bar: some will lower the net to play tennis, while others will set it so high that it will be unrealistic. The country is already experiencing a digital divide where access and affordability to purchase technological devices and the internet has been a problem. The pandemic has highlighted the gap between developed and developing countries, urban and rural populations, youth and educated versus older and less educated, public and private sectors, and men and women Women’s. One of the consequences of the digital divide is isolation, which can lead to psychological disturbances. Gender discrimination is another problem, as parents prefer to invest more in the education of a boy than in that of a girl. It is important that we return to campuses to fill these gaps.

In an ideal world, we would like to see campuses and complexes filled with the liveliness of our students, freed from their screen time and Zoom boxes. We would like to participate in activities that will hone their social skills and practical knowledge. But letting the political ball fly at the last second with lots of holes is sure to ruin the party.

Shamsad Mortuza is Acting Vice Chancellor of the Bangladesh Liberal Arts University (ULAB) and Professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).


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