Several countries in Asia are closing universities or starting university vacations early as a second wave of COVID-19 spreads in the region. This week the governments of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran announced the closure of universities and schools. Elsewhere, plans are being drawn up to close universities early for the winter break.
Even in countries not facing a second wave, where students have returned to campuses restrictions are tight including on entry and leaving campuses, distancing measures and staggered classes, and in many cases attendance is poor.
In India’s most populous northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which reopened its universities this week after being shut for eight months, attendance was only 38% across the state, agencies reported.
Campuses have been partially reopening in India on a state by state basis after months of lockdown. Coronavirus cases in India peaked in September. The country has seen more than nine million COVID-19 cases and 135,296 deaths as of 26 November.
But despite this being the second time classes have had to go online, in several countries universities and education authorities are still unprepared. Many countries in the region have been running online or combined online and face-to-face classes since March.
While China says it has largely contained the spread of COVID-19, seeing no second wave since its major outbreak which began in December 2019, this month saw sudden outbreaks in the port city of Tianjin near Beijing and in Shanghai, putting universities in Shanghai on alert.
Several students at universities in Shanghai, including East China Normal University and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, reported tightened rules on entry and leaving their campuses.
Students who could be contacted at Wuhan University in central China said that campus life was still not back to normal compared to before the COVID-19 outbreak that started in Wuhan in December 2019, and that movement around campus was restricted.
While many universities began to reopen in September with special measures in place, reports emerging this month at universities in Anhui province and Xi’an said students had been protesting about high food prices at campus shops and dining halls and they had been restricted from leaving their campuses to buy food, while takeaway food deliveries were banned from campuses.
Social media posts on Weibo in recent weeks featured lists of restrictions at campuses, including one at a university in Xi’an which did not allow undergraduate students to leave the campus. It only allowed graduate students to leave with special permission and on condition they returned to campus the same day. Students contacted this week said some of the restrictions had been lifted, in particular the stringent paperwork required to gain permission.
Weibo reports of student protests last month on several campuses said students had listed ‘five demands’ – which echoed the five demands of Hong Kong student-led protests earlier this year. The posts were quickly removed from the platform by censors.
Chinese student demands aired on Weibo included a stop to rocketing water and electricity fees, more freedom to enter and leave campuses, an end to bans on takeaway food and the need for extended internet time. They also demanded the election of student delegates to push for their demands with university administrations.
Students have also complained about facial recognition used at university entrances and exits.
The Pakistan government this week announced the closure of universities and other educational institutions from 25 November 2020 to 10 January 2021. Academic exams will be suspended as the country grapples with a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that has claimed more than 7,800 lives and affected over 383,000 people since February.
Federal Minister for Education and Professional Training Shafqat Mahmood told University World News: “Now at least 50 people are dying every day in Pakistan and the positivity ratio [the percentage of people testing positive for COVID-19] has reached an all-time high of 7.5% and this situation demands us to be careful towards our future generations.
“Academic loss is bearable compared with the loss of precious lives. Students will continue getting education online.”
However, the government has been criticised for not bridging the digital divide witnessed during the earlier closure of universities announced on 13 March when student organisations staged demonstrations across many cities for the provision of adequate resources for online classes. Students were beaten and arrested by the police in Balochistan province for demanding internet access.
“The situation is the same; universities are again closed without a practical roadmap for online education. People living in villages and other far-flung areas, especially in Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces, are still deprived of internet access,” Waseem Hoth, president of Baloch Students Organisation told University World News.
Most areas in Pakistan do not have internet access and other facilities for online classes. Of the country’s 220 million population, only 76.3 million have internet access, with internet penetration in the country at 35%.
A World Bank report titled Learning Losses in Pakistan Due to COVID-19 School Closures, released in October, states: “Despite its universal appeal, remote learning is not accessible to everyone [in Pakistan] … even low-tech tools such as radios are not regularly used.” The study quotes a survey in Punjab which found that only 30% of households are aware of remote learning opportunities.
Muhammad Qaqoob, a Karachi-based digital management consultant, told University World News: “As a matter of fact, we did not learn from the previous wave of coronavirus and little was done to bridge the digital divide and expand broadband services to deprived areas.
“Although it is commendable to start a tele school by the state-run television and a new radio school by the Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation for primary level students, there has been no significant advancement for online education of the students of colleges and universities.”
Waseem Hoth said the government received billions of dollars in coronavirus aid from international donors, but nothing has been spent on developing a sustainable online education system for university students, which will result in continued academic losses as long as the pandemic persists.
The Afghan government has been forced to announce the early closure of universities for extended winter holidays across the country amid fears of a second wave of COVID-19 cases. The closures would come into effect from 28 November, though higher education ministry spokesman Hamed Obaidi said closures were proposed to the cabinet by the ministry of health a week ago.
Obaidi added that this would cut the current semester by at least six weeks. “But students will attend their classes in absentia during these six weeks via the online platform HELMS [Higher Education Learning Management System],” he told University World News.
The latest figures from the health ministry indicated that on average more than 200 new confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been reported from across the country daily. In total, at least 45,000 Afghans have been infected with coronavirus.
The country had just reopened publicly funded higher education institutions last month for all grades after health authorities claimed the country had passed the first wave of coronavirus infections.
Thousands of newly enrolled students, particularly in smaller and remote towns, are likely to be affected, researcher Alam Jan from the Academy of Sciences of Afghanistan, told University World News. Online learning platforms and distance learning programmes have not yet been able to take root.
“The first lockdown back in spring this year provided a good opportunity to shake up traditional methods of teaching, which desperately needed uplifting, but it seems not much has been done to chalk out locally feasible solutions to ensure students do not miss out on their studies,” he said.
In his view, for countries such as Afghanistan that are prone to violence and natural disasters, online and distance learning are always going to be needed.
Iran announced the closure of most academic institutions including universities for “a limited time” as it has been affected by a third wave of the pandemic, which has been far worse than the first two waves – it saw a short second wave in June.
A surge in cases has overburdened hospitals, with the number diagnosed with COVID-19 reaching 13,352 cases in one day on 17 November.
The country’s health ministry has put the total death toll from the coronavirus at more than 40,000 with total cases exceeding 620,000. The new strict restrictions affecting hundreds of cities announced by President Hassan Rouhani, to begin on 21 November, will be in place for at least 10 days.
Authorities in Sri Lanka extended the school holidays for two more weeks, postponing the opening of classes amid a surge of COVID-19 patients from two clusters in Colombo and the capital’s suburbs. Schools had been scheduled to reopen on 9 November, but the government announced that this was to be postponed until 23 November.
Schools were suddenly closed last month as a precautionary measure after a new cluster of coronavirus infections centred on a garment factory erupted in the densely populated Western Province, where the capital is. Another cluster centred on the country’s main fish market arose later.
The two clusters have now grown to 7,856 confirmed cases, with 275 in the previous 24 hours. The total caseload for the pandemic in Sri Lanka stands at 22,500, with 100 deaths from COVID-19.
Japanese universities are considering closing earlier for the winter break after a major spike in cases this month, with this third wave coming after a smaller second wave in August. The daily tally of cases on 22 November of 2,514 was the highest recorded this year.
More Japanese universities have adopted a hybrid teaching system, mixing remote learning with physical classes, this semester – a change from the online only teaching that has been the norm since May when the government announced emergency isolation measures.
Results released by the Ministry of Education in September from a survey of 1,006 private and national universities revealed that 80% of universities prefer the integrated teaching style.
“Universities make their internal decisions so the current situation, the use of diverse teaching styles, reflects both administration concern about infections and opinions from their students,” said Naoki Miki, an official at the higher education department in the Ministry of Education.
“The Ministry of Education provided funding and other technical support to universities to make the change rapidly to meet the new demands,” explained Miki.
However, a separate survey conducted by university students in August found that almost 90% of those polled expressed a desire for face-to-face classes. The reasons were mental health issues from being stuck at home, difficulty with online learning and disappointment that they cannot enjoy campus life despite being enrolled as students.
The students on 13 October presented Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga with a petition demanding the start of classes. Their action prompted Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda on 16 October to call on universities to increase face-to-face instruction. Many universities opposed this.
Hidebumi Koide, secretary of the 410-member Association of Private Universities of Japan, told Japanese media that the holding of face-to-face classes depends on the infection rate in each region, the size of the university and whether classes are lectures or practical work and if subjects are in humanities or science.
In a bid to conduct more campus classes, universities have been taking new infection prevention measures. The University of Tokyo, for example, is providing students with online information to check congestion in ongoing classes.
Kansai University, a private institution, plans to offer 70% of regular classes in person. The students have, however, been requested not to hold drinking parties. Other universities are prioritising face-to-face classes in science departments.
Other measures employed are to restrict the participants in each class and to set classroom desks wide apart to observe social distancing. Online classes also include interaction sessions with other students to promote a ‘campus spirit’.
Schools and universities resumed face-to-face classes in mid-October in the capital Seoul and its surrounding region, mostly with staggered classes to ensure social distancing. However, a number of universities in the western districts of Seoul announced they would move back to online only classes after cases were found among students and staff.
Korea University in Seoul shut down three of its buildings this month after a student contracted the virus.
On 26 November the Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency announced the daily number of COVID-19 cases was at 553, surpassing 500 a day for the first time in eight months, and confirming the arrival of a third wave. During the second wave of infections in August, a peak was reached when 441 cases were recorded in a single day on 27 August.
The focus in South Korea amid a surging third wave has been on conducting the annual national university entrance examination safely, with special measures in place in the run up to the exam, due to be taken by almost 500,000 students on 3 December, to attempt to reduce virus transmission in schools and private cram schools.
North Korea has insisted that it has had no COVID-19 cases, but information is difficult to verify. Reputable sources said schools did not open on 1 November for a delayed autumn semester because of “quarantine efforts against COVID-19”. According to reports, school reopening has been delayed several times this year.
But students living in a dormitory of Wonsan University of Fisheries in Wonsan in North Korea’s Kangwon province were put in isolation after displaying COVID-like symptoms.
In most of the country university students will remain isolated on campuses until the Eighth Party Congress in January, the South Korea based Daily NK reported. According to other reports at the end of October, university students in Pyongyang are taking online courses via the country’s intranet. However, with limited connectivity outside the capital, teachers were visiting students in their homes to provide classes.
According to the World Health Organization weekly report on COVID-19, the number of people being tested for COVID-19 continues to rise in North Korea, but the country has yet to report a single confirmed case.
Malaysia closed schools from 9 November, more than a month earlier than the normal December end of term. But Education Minister Radzi Jidin said school pupils would resume face-to-face classes from 20 January.
Schools were earlier closed between March and May with the UN population agency UNFPA reporting an ‘alarming’ drop-out rate among poorer communities in some areas as a result of learning ‘demotivation’.
Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia – the national school exams taken by 16-year-olds which is normally held in November and December – was scheduled to start on 6 January for four weeks but has now been further postponed to 22 February amid worries that further postponement could affect college enrolments.
In-person registration of students for the new semester at Malaysian universities was abruptly cancelled in early October after a spike in COVID-19 cases. But classes have already been online since March, with special consideration for researchers and students requiring laboratory facilities. Around 8% of the total number of students at public universities and colleges were on campuses as of 16 November, the Malaysian news agency Bernama reported.
Universiti Sains Malaysia’s engineering, medical and main campuses were forced to ask students who had been granted permission to return to campus in early November to stay away after a major surge in cases in Penang state where it is based.
Malaysia’s second wave surge appears to have peaked on 23 November with 1,884 cases registered on that day. Overall, Malaysia has seen 60,752 cases and 348 deaths as of 26 November.
Source: University World News