CAIRO—The first semester of the 2020-2021 academic year is approaching its end in most of the Arab region’s universities amid confusion over how to move forward as new coronavirus infections surge. After many universities started the school year with traditional on-campus classes while adhering to safety measures, university administrations have now suspended such classes and returned to distance education as their countries experience a second wave of Covid-19 infections and deaths.
Late last year, Khaled Abdel Ghaffar, Egypt’s minister of higher education and scientific research, announced the closure of all universities, the completion of the academic year with distance education, and the postponement of fall semester exams until after the end of the mid-year vacation. However, in a televised interview, he hinted that it may be possible to resume the spring semester normally.
“From a scientific point of view,” he said, “we expect things will go back to normal during the second half of February with the presence of vaccines, or the end of the second wave of the coronavirus.”
Still, nothing has been announced so far regarding the method for applying for the first semester exams.
The situation is similar in Tunisia, where the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research announced the suspension of all classes, exams and thesis discussions at universities and the closure of libraries through the 24th of January as a means to limit the spread of the virus.
In Lebanon, where a soaring infection rate coincides with an economic crisis that has doubled poverty rates, authorities imposed an almost complete lockdown, including all educational institutions, from the 14th of this month until the first of February. Recently, intensive care units in a number of Lebanese hospitals announced reaching their maximum capacity.
“Life is almost stalled here,” said Ghina Abdel-Mawla, a student at the Lebanese University’s Faculty of Law. “I don’t think classes can be resumed soon, and I don’t wish so. Covid-19 infections are increasing, hospitals are reluctant to admit patients, and it is difficult to secure medicines. How can we study in such circumstances?”
Problems of Distance Education Persist
The continuation of the school year seems more stable in other countries, like Bahrain and Jordan, as they adopted online education from the beginning. University campuses and school buildings have remained closed after adopting distance education last year.
However, in countries like Yemen, Libya and Sudan, distance education is not a viable option, since the majority of their educational institutions or students do not have the necessary equipment and capabilities. (See a related article, “The Shift to Online Education in the Arab World Is Intensifying Inequality.”)
“The continued deterioration of the economic situation has caused a decrease in the number of students registered at university this year.”Tariq Al-Marhaby
A teaching assistant at Hajjah University, in Yemen
In Yemen, classes continue normally with shrinking precautionary measures. Most educational institutions cannot switch to distance learning due to poor Internet service and poor coverage in many places.
Yemeni universities are witnessing a significant decline in the number of students enrolled in colleges as a result of the harsh living conditions in the war-torn country and the inability of Yemeni families to continue paying study expenses, including housing, transportation, book costs and university fees. (See a related article, “Yemeni Students Are Caught in a Currency Exchange Trap.”)
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“The continued deterioration of the economic situation has caused a decrease in the number of students registered at university this year,” said Tariq Al-Marhaby, a teaching assistant in the Computer and Networks Department of the College of Applied Sciences at Hajjah University, 70 miles northwest of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a. “However, we try, as professors, to coordinate with each other to be available on campus two days a week to help students.”
In Sudan, some universities are working to adopt distance education, but the country lacks the capacity to put it in place generally. This has led to dividing students into shifts throughout the week to reduce the numbers in each class while following precautionary measures for fear of further disruptions of study, which has been already unstable since the outbreak of the revolution that toppled Omar al-Bashir’s regime in 2019.
“Since the revolution, classes have been greatly disrupted and there is fear that this will continue, since fear of instability confuses the scene more than fear of the coronavirus.”Nashwa Issa
An assistant professor of physics at Al-Neelain University, in Khartoum
“Since the revolution, classes have been greatly disrupted and there is fear that this will continue, since fear of instability confuses the scene more than fear of the coronavirus,” said Nashwa Issa, an assistant professor of physics at Al-Neelain University, in Khartoum. Universities are trying to reduce the number of students in classrooms to avoid spreading infections amid a lack of medical care and a poor health-care system.
Blended Education and Precautionary Measures
Some universities have tried to combine traditional classroom education with distance education, as is the case in some Gulf countries such as Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Most universities decided to implement a blended education system, under which 50 percent of students attend classes physically—especially those who need to attend practical lessons—with only 50 percent of the teaching staff.
Students who are required to be present on campus must bring a negative coronavirus test result and undergo coronavirus testing periodically before entering the university. In addition, precautionary measures have been put in place to combat spreading the virus.
In Libya, despite the country’s weak financial capabilities compared to the Gulf countries, universities are also trying to continue studies using a blended system. For example, the public Universities of Tripoli and Benghazi use the blended system in a number of disciplines, such as colleges of medicine, engineering, and pharmacy. Physical attendance is permitted in some engineering departments due to their small number of students. Some private universities, such as the Faculty of Pharmacy at the Libyan International Medical University, in Benghazi, also allow physical attendance in practical lectures and use distance learning in theoretical subjects.
Fatima Al-Falah, an assistant professor of psychology at the College of Arts and director of the Office of Quality Assurance and Performance Evaluation at Benghazi University, believes that blended education is the best fit for students and professors at the present time. “I think that the current system is appropriate to a large extent and better than suspending studies completely,” she said, “especially in light of the continuing spread of the pandemic for the second year in a row.”
“The current system is appropriate to a large extent and better than suspending studies completely, especially in light of the continuing spread of the pandemic for the second year in a row.”Fatima Al-Falah
An assistant professor of psychology at Benghazi University, in Libya
Many are optimistic about the second semester, in light of the news that Covid-19 vaccines will be available soon. Some countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, have already begun to provide vaccinations to all citizens and residents who want them. Other countries, such as Morocco, have indicated that the vaccine will soon be available for priority groups, including medical sector professionals, and the Education Committee of the Jordanian Senate has recommended placing teachers and professors within the priority groups for vaccination there.
“I think the nightmare is coming to an end,” said Nash’at Akarsha, an assistant professor at a private university in northern Amman. “Soon the pandemic will be over and we will return to the hustle and bustle of our classrooms.”
Akarsha added that he hoped the momentum toward adopting distance education would continue after the pandemic subsides. “We must benefit from the experience and continue to adopt online learning, even if partially, as it is a good tool that can always be adopted during crises,” he said.
Tarek Abd El-Galil contributed to this report.