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How to Reopen Universities Safely: A ‘Toolkit’ Offers Guidance

Universities are grappling with a number of complex, high-stakes factors as they decide how to reopen their campuses and continue their mission amid the continuing Covid-19 pandemic. A new “toolkit” seeks to provide them with a framework to help guide those decisions.

The toolkit, titled “Covid-19 Planning Guide and Self-Assessment for Higher Education” and explained on a website called OpenSmartEDU, is designed to help educational institutions of all kinds gauge how effectively they are preparing for a range of Covid-19 scenarios. It acknowledges that each organization will need to develop and implement its own plan for resuming its educational work.

The guide was produced by three organizations in the United States—the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation, and the Baltimore-based firm Tuscany Strategy Consulting. It was developed primarily for colleges and universities in the United States, “but it can be used to benefit universities and colleges around the world, given that the risks and potential mitigation steps are the same,” Lucia Mullen, a senior analyst and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center and co-author of the report, said in an email.

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The process begins with four guiding principles. The first is to recognize that higher education will benefit from being reimagined to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic and beyond.

The other three principles stress protecting the health and safety of all members of a campus community; maintaining academic excellence under challenging circumstances; and making equity and inclusion critical components of institutional responses.

Health and safety questions include making sure that campuses have personal protective equipment, sterilization materials, ways of accommodating social distancing and quarantine, access to health facilities, and an emergency plan in the event of a sudden closure.

“University leaders must discuss and define the available resources to implement health and safety measures according to the resources they own.”

Lucia Mullen
 A senior analyst and researcher at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security

The guidelines also address whether universities have the financial resources to meet these challenges, and to provide opportunities for training of teachers, as well as students and administrators, and the ability to design online education programs with quality control mechanisms and efficient communication between employees and students.

The report’s suggested risk assessment tool can assist higher education institutions in identifying and understanding their baseline risk level and the impact that key mitigation steps (such as physical distancing, protective equipment, contact tracing and testing) may have on their risk degrees.

Risk scores are divided into four levels: very low, low, moderate, and very high. However, the report says universities should  not consider their risk scores as a permission to reopen, or a ban to prevent them from reopening. Instead, it suggests that the scores be considered a tool that helps organizations identify gaps in health and safety planning for their stakeholders. The assessment tool can be used frequently to track changes in risk levels while implementing mitigation steps.

“The risks and benefits must be carefully weighed,” the report says.

Benefits in the Arab World

Mullen believes all universities that intend to resume their activities, including those in the Arab world, should first conduct a self-assessment to determine their risks.

“Yes, universities in the Arab region can apply the guide and use the self-assessment tool,” she said. “They may not be able to implement all measures due to limited budgets, but you should choose the most important activities and provide the best results in reducing risk.

“University leaders must discuss and define the available resources to implement health and safety measures according to the resources they own,” she added.

Some Arab countries, such as Tunisia, Syria and Mauritania, have reopened their higher academic institutions, while senior-year students at Egypt’s public universities have sat for their final exams. (See two related articles: “Arab Universities Begin Reopening After Covid-19 Closures” and “Afraid of Infection, Medical Students in Egypt Want to Postpone Exams.”)

The American University of Beirut plans to begin its fall semester on September 1, using a mix of on-campus and online classes, the institution’s president, Fadlo R. Khuri, said in a letter to the AUB community earlier this month.

Khuri, who is a medical doctor, stressed that the health and safety of students and faculty and staff members were top priorities as the campus developed the reopening plans.

“It will be difficult to provide all precautionary measures to prevent infection in colleges where large numbers of students, up to thousands, study.”

Abdul-Azim El-Gammal
 A professor of immunology and microbiology at Suez Canal University in Egypt

Zaher Dawy, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and chair of the institution’s University Research Board, said he had not read the Johns Hopkins center’s report or its recommendations, but he made it clear that his university was working on plans to reopen the campus safely.

“We have created teams planning to take the necessary precautions in response to the current epidemic situation,” he said. “We are developing plans as needed, taking into account the new guidelines from the university’s expert committee.”

Online Components Will Continue

Some of the measures outlined in the Johns Hopkins center’s report are similar to those issued by some Arab universities related to increasing the distance between seats in classrooms to a minimum of six feet, to reducing student numbers in classrooms, in addition to wearing face masks. But this is a challenge for some universities.

“It will be difficult to provide all precautionary measures to prevent infection in colleges where large numbers of students, up to thousands, study,” said Abdul-Azim El-Gammal, a professor of immunology and microbiology at Suez Canal University in Egypt. “There will be a need to continue the application of online education and evaluation systems.”

Egypt’s Ministry of Higher Education has announced that a system that combines traditional, face-to-face education in classrooms with online learning will be adopted permanently, starting from the next academic year.

Mohamed Latif, secretary-general of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Universities, explained in an interview that students in Egyptian universities will be divided into small groups to prevent crowding and allow for social distancing, and that each faculty member will be responsible for a number of groups. The plan is contingent on putting direct education and distance education into effect together, with a ratio of 60 percent face-to-face instruction and 40 percent online education in practical colleges, and 50 percent online education for theoretical colleges.

“This system will be a permanent one, not a temporary measure due to the coronavirus,” Latif said.

The Johns Hopkins center’s report calls for serious consideration of whether it is beneficial for students and staff to return to university campuses while the coronavirus is still spreading, or whether it would be better to provide education online along with other educational activities.

“Maintaining health and safety remains the most important and most focused priority,” said Mullen.


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