Lebanese campuses are starting to buzz with student life as universities revert to full or partial in-person teaching after more than a year of virtual classes imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Extensive vaccination programs paved the way for a gradual return to seemingly normal campus life, despite the hassles caused by severe shortages of fuel and frequent power and Internet cuts.
“It is such a good feeling to be back on campus and to reconnect with people,” said Sari Chmaytelli, a psychology student at the American University of Beirut. “I am seeing friends that I have met two years ago. It was like a reunion and getting to know each other again.”
“Many students, especially those residing outside Beirut, are returning to campus because power and Internet are available all the time,” Chmaytelli said. “Due to the fuel shortage and the hassle of commuting they are staying with friends or at the university’s dorms.”
In most of Beirut, electricity is available for only one or two hours a day, and motorists can wait in line for four hours to buy gasoline. But the American University of Beirut has its own giant power generators and has been able to obtain enough diesel fuel to operate them because the university hospital is the largest in the city. (See a related article, “Crisis Puts Lebanon’s University Hospitals at Risk of Forced Shutdowns.”)
In September, classes were still delivered online except for labs, studios, workshops, seminars and exams, which were done in person on campus. Around 90 percent of the university’s people have received at least one dose of the vaccine, however, and the target is to exceed 95 percent to allow full resumption of in-person classes on October 1.
Free Vaccination for All
“We are following a gradual approach for a safe return to campus,” Zaher Dawy, the university’s provost, said in an interview through mail. “Since the start of the fall semester (on August 30), the campus has been open to all vaccinated students. Student life is back to campus and all student services are being revived including clubs and societies, dorms, and athletic facilities and activities.”
The same is true to varying degrees in other Lebanese universities.
Saint-Joseph University of Beirut began the academic year in hybrid mode on September 1. Courses such as medical internships and classes with laboratory and practical work requirements necessitated students’ presence, but other courses are shifting from online to hybrid (online and in-person) mode.
“Many students, especially those residing outside Beirut, are returning to campus because power and Internet are available all the time. Due to the fuel shortage and the hassle of commuting, they are staying with friends or at the university’s dorms.”Sari Chmaytelli
A psychology student at the American University of Beirut
“Since May, USJ launched a vaccination campaign which is free of charge to all faculty, staff and students, in collaboration with our universityhHospital, Hôtel-Dieu de France,” said Nadine Riachi, Saint-Joseph’s secretary-general. “We are following strict sanitary and health measures to ensure everyone’s safety. Social distancing, hand hygiene and wearing a mask will be required at all times in class and on campus.”
The Lebanese American University switched to full in-person learning at its campuses in Beirut and Byblos after achieving what it called safe levels of social immunity.
“More than 85 percent of faculty, students and staff have been vaccinated, and the unvaccinated will be required to test negative for Covid-19 prior to entering campus,” the university said in a statement.
A Chance to Socialize
Students mostly opted for carpooling or moved into the dorms to be closer to campus. For some who joined the Lebanese American University last year during the Covid-19 closures, this was their introduction to campus life.
Maya Darwish, a second-year computer science student, has never attended classes on campus before.
“We will finally get the chance to socialize and make new friends – everyone keeps saying the university friends are different, and I’m excited to meet new people,” she said, adding that coming to campus was “challenging but worth it.”
The Lebanese University, Lebanon’s only public higher-education institution, is not expected to begin classes until mid-October.
“We are still in the process of holding entrance exams,” said Ziad Abou Alwan, professor of architecture at the university’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Architecture. “Classes won’t start before mid-October and they will continue to be in hybrid mode in most faculties except the faculties of applied sciences, such as medicine and engineering.”
“Schedules are being designed in a way to have workshops and classes that necessitate attendance over two days a week in order to reduce commuting of teachers and students due to the fuel crisis,” Abou Alwan added.
Unlike private universities, the Lebanese University did not implement a comprehensive vaccination plan. While faculty and staff members have been fully vaccinated, there is no program to vaccinate students.
Vaccines and Transportation Plans
Holy Spirit University of Kaslik will start shifting from online to campus teaching on October 1.
The university is currently developing a transportation plan to help staff and faculty members to return to campus, said Faten el Hage, an associate provost.
“Schedules are being designed in a way to have workshops and classes that necessitate attendance over two days a week in order to reduce commuting of teachers and students due to the fuel crisis.”Ziad Abou Alwan
A professor of architecture at the Lebanese University
It has also offered vaccines to staff, faculty members and students, “and entry to campus will be restricted to vaccinated persons and those presenting a weekly negative PCR test,” al Hage added.
For its part, Beirut Arab University kicked off the academic year on September 6 with a message from its president, Amr El-Adawi, vowing to “keep its gates open, its classes running and its students learning and graduating.”
Although most faculty, staff members and students have been vaccinated, classes at Beirut Arab University will run in blended mode, given Lebanon’s fuel, electricity and Internet problems. In-person courses will run only four days a week, while the material delivered online will be recorded and made accessible to students on their Moodle platforms.
Antonine University, meanwhile, divided its courses into fully online, hybrid and in-person on campus. The latter two will be delivered under strict health rules, including social distancing in classrooms to be operated at 50 percent capacity. To meet the disruption of normal on-campus life, the university organized webinars on mental health, resilience and art therapy.
To read more about how the Covid-19 pandemic is affecting education, research and culture in the Arab region, see a collection of articles from Al-Fanar Media.