Arab Universities Begin Reopening After Covid-19 Closures

/ 02 Jul 2020

Arab Universities Begin Reopening After Covid-19 Closures

Three months after the coronavirus forced universities across the Arab region to shut their doors, campuses have started reopening with strict precautions, including obligatory face masks, social distancing in classrooms, and temperature checks at entrances.

Syria opened its universities June 1; a week later Tunisia did the same. They were followed by Lebanon.

But government and university officials stress that the openings remain tentative and could be reversed if the danger of infection increases. Palestine, for example, reopened its universities in mid-June and then closed them again one week later over fears the virus could spread in crowded campuses, after a rise in Covid-19 infections in several parts of the territory.

In Libya, after several postponements, a reopening of campuses was scheduled for June 27. But in the end, authorities put it off again. (As they have in the past, higher-education officials from the warring eastern and western halves of the country appear to be unofficially coordinating such decisions).

Ali Elgayar, a professor and head of quality assurance in the faculty of engineering at the University of Benghazi, says many faculty members and students are eager to return to their courses. But with the country in the grips of a slow-burning civil war, and Covid-19 not fully understood, “everybody is afraid to take a decision.”

Temperature Checks at the Gate

As has been the case at many other Arab universities that have reopened, students in Syria are required to enter through a single campus gate, or through one door in each building, where their temperature is checked with a non-contact sensor.

In the beginning, “it was a big mess,” says Ahmad Firas Hamadeh, a business management instructor at two private universities, Arab International University and Bilad Al-Sham University.

“There were long lines and people got sick from the sun,” says Hamadeh. But the temperature checks were “only enforced for the first two weeks.”

“Everybody is afraid to take a decision.”

Ali Elgayar   a professor and head of quality assurance in the faculty of engineering at the University of Benghazi

At Saint Joseph University of Beirut, students who enter any of the institution’s eight campuses must leave their name and contact information, so they can be traced if a campus outbreak of Covid-19 should be discovered.

Because of the pandemic, Saint Joseph has been bending the rules, which do not authorize distance education, to allow professors to administer end-of-term exams online or require an end-of-term project in place of an exam. Yet many professors, unaccustomed to online education, still require in-person tests, which are now held, whenever possible, in large lecture halls to allow distancing between students. (See a related article, “Will the Coronavirus Pandemic Help Reform Arab Higher Education?”)

But many are uneasy. “We received hundreds of appeals from students; they are worried about coming to campus for final exams,” says Carla Eddé, vice-rector for international relations.

Lebanese University, the country’s only public institution, must respect the official rules and is requiring all of its 82,000 students to take final exams on campus.

As at other reopening institutions, Lebanese University disinfects classrooms often. And to allow distancing between students, “exams are taking place in auditoriums, in cafeterias, and even outside,” says Hoda Mokanass, a professor of linguistics and head of the office of communication and information. As a small added measure, the university shortened the standard duration of final exams from two to one and a half hours.

A health care worker checks the temperatures of students before they enter Monastir University, in Tunisia (Photo: Courtesy of Monastir University).
A health care worker checks the temperatures of students before they enter Monastir University, in Tunisia (Photo: Courtesy of Monastir University).

A Different Tack in Tunisia

In Lebanon, in addition to exams, campuses are opening only for classes that can’t be held online, like laboratory courses. But in other countries, like Tunisia, some institutions have taken a different tack.

The University of Carthage, one of Tunisia’s largest public institutions, has canceled laboratory courses after concluding that working together in close proximity would put students at too much risk of infection. Instead, “students are all asked to present an individual, theoretical research project,” says Lilia Romdhane, a professor of biology.

Romdhane, who suffers from muscular dystrophy and uses a wheelchair, says she is at high risk of serious complications if she should contract the coronavirus. But her first weeks back lecturing on campus have reassured her.

“If the risk of infection had been greater, I wouldn’t have returned,” she says.

Some Tunisian institutions have taken additional steps. Larger departments at the University of Monastir, a public institution with 20,000 students, have been divided in two, with half of students coming to campus for classes and exams in June and half in July.

Moreover, as soon as the institution reopened, “we did rapid [coronavirus] tests for half of our students,” says Hedi Belhadj Salah, the university’s president. The testing targeted students from nine of the country’s 24 governorates with higher incidences of the virus. None of the students tested positive.

Belhadj Salah says that with Tunisia’s low rate of infection, students and faculty members are beginning to let down their guard, and, for example, wear masks less frequently. As of late June, Tunisia had registered about 1,200 cases of Covid-19, including 50 deaths, compared to more than 185,000 cases and 1,600 deaths in Saudi Arabia, the Arab country worst hit by the pandemic, according to a database maintained by Johns Hopkins University.

“We don’t want people to stop taking precautions, but in fact everything is almost normal,” says Belhadj Salah. He warns, however, that a new wave of infections is an ever-present danger.

“We don’t want people to stop taking precautions, but in fact everything is almost normal,”

Hedi Belhadj Salah   he University of Monastir president

Student Opposition

Students are not as confident as higher education leaders. The General Union of Tunisian Students pushed unsuccessfully for a postponement of university reopenings, warning that crowded campuses pose too great a risk. “The return procedure was hasty, and it was not prepared enough,” said Warda Atig, secretary-general of the student group.

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In Mauritania, student representatives reluctantly accepted the reopening of technical institutions on July 1, and of the University of Nouakchott, the country’s only public institution, on September 1, after authorities presented a plan for rigorous safety measures. Moustapha Sidi, secretary-general of the National Union of Mauritanian Students, said these include frequent disinfection of premises and the provision of masks and hand sanitizer.

In Egypt, many students appear to oppose the decision of national authorities to hold postponed final exams for the spring semester in person on campuses between July 1 and September 15. Officials insist on in-person exams “even though there are alternatives like electronic exams or research projects,” says Mohammad Samir a fourth-year law student at Assiut University.

The pandemic has focused attention on the fact that online education, and especially online exams, are not recognized in most Arab countries. In a number of countries, education leaders have been working with legislators in the last few months to change laws to allow and regulate the practice. (See a related article, “Next Steps for New Online Courses: Measure Learning, Prevent Cheating.”)

Access and the Digital Divide

Belhadj Salah, of Tunisia’s University of Monastir, says that with the urgent efforts made by many faculty members to put their courses online during the shutdown, “I think we are a little better prepared” if campuses should be forced to close again. He says that about 15 percent of Monastir’s students could not take advantage of online education during the shutdown due to inadequate Internet connectivity or a lack of personal computers.

The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research provided some financial support to help poorer students pay for high-speed Internet connections, “but there is a real problem of equity in this area,” he says.

Students take exams while wearing masks and practicing social distancing at Lebanese University (Photo: Courtesy of Lebanese University).
Students take exams while wearing masks and practicing social distancing at Lebanese University (Photo: Courtesy of Lebanese University).

Meanwhile, whenever universities do finally reopen, faculty members in many countries face the problem of somehow teaching weeks of missed lessons in a much shorter period, in order to allow time for the fall semester to start, even with a delay of a month or two now planned in various countries.

This has not been an issue in richer countries, like Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States, where nearly all students have access to high-speed Internet and were able to complete their spring semester online.

“The challenge is condensing the curriculum,” says Hamadeh, the Syrian business management instructor.

Banning Masks During Exams

In Syria, faculty members expect a decision shortly from the higher education authorities that will ban the wearing of masks during university exams, to prevent cheating. A similar policy was announced recently for secondary-school end-of-year exams.

That decision was taken after consultations with the World Health Organization, the minister of education, Imad Al-Azab, said in a news conference on June 16. “It was found that the mask does not protect against the virus,” Al-Azab said, “so we decided not to allow students wearing masks or gloves” in exam locations.

Some universities, meanwhile, are trying to put part of their instruction online to reduce the number of students on campuses at any time.  At Damascus University, Syria’s largest public institution, departments worked on improving their websites during the shutdown, and put course materials online. Some faculty members are now posting recordings of their lectures.

“Students are told, ‘you have the resources online,’ which wasn’t the case before pandemic,” says Talal Al-Shihabi, a professor of civil engineering at Damascus University. “If you think you don’t need to attend class, don’t do it.”

He says that a month after the reopening of the campus, “people are often keeping a minimum distance from one another, and guys are hugging less and high-fiving less. You see more hand washing and most students carry hand sanitizer.” At the same time, most students are no longer respecting the requirement to wear a mask once they pass an entrance guard post and are on the campus.

Al-Shihabi’s daughter, a student at Damascus University, is one of many who has returned to campus. “She was concerned” about the health risks, he says, “and I am too; many families are. But life must go on; you cannot just stay home forever.”

Tarek Abd El-Galil contributed to this article.




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