Campus closures are not inevitable

Those who fear a resurgence of coronavirus as campuses reopen can take heart from how Taiwan’s universities maintained in-person teaching throughout the pandemic, explains Cher Chiu

August 27, 2020
Source: istock

When Taiwan’s Ministry of Education issued strict guidelines on how schools, colleges and universities should act to contain the coronavirus, many assumed that our institution would be the first to close its doors.

This prediction was a reasonable one. After all, National Taiwan University (NTU) has more than 2,000 faculty, 32,000 students and is located in the centre of the busiest city, Taipei, where most of the country’s confirmed cases of Covid-19 have been found. Indeed, one of our own chemistry professors, Cheng-Chih Hsu – whose analysis correctly predicted the virus’s decline in Wuhan in February – forecast that NTU would soon shut.

So why did the policy, which ordered the closure for 14 days of any school with two or more confirmed cases, not shutter our campus? The answer is, in many ways, simple: NTU came prepared to combat the virus and did so with full force.

Our pandemic task force was established as early as January 2020, and it held weekly meetings to ensure that campus protocols stayed up to date and relayed relevant information to our community. Access to campus was strictly controlled via identification cards, while the use of contactless thermometers, the frequent sanitisation of premises and social distancing kept the campus virus-free.

As a result, many Taiwanese students who had enrolled in overseas universities and were unable to return to their institutions have enquired about studying with us next semester. So far, 278 students have registered for the Special Visiting Programme that will enable these Taiwanese students to come home.

Of course, Covid-19 had a profound impact on our daily lives. As the number of cases began to skyrocket across the world, about 1,100 students and staff at NTU were placed under quarantine or self-management. Those living in dormitories were provided with meals, water and rubbish collection while isolating.

However, no confirmed cases have been recorded at NTU, and only seven cases have been identified across six other universities. Everyday life also changed for the majority of students, too; in our cafeterias, students must eat on their own to promote social distancing, while staff wear masks and undergo regular temperature checks.

This record on epidemic prevention was recently highlighted in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, and we have shared some of our practices with other institutions across the world via online conferences, round-table discussions and webinars.

The coronavirus crisis has challenged institutions worldwide to rethink almost every aspect of academic life. At NTU, we are no different. Like many universities, we have massively increased our digital offering: the number of online courses nearly tripled in the first three months of the outbreak, and classes of more than 100 students were required to go virtual from early April.

It has also deepened our engagement with the Association of East Asian Research Universities, leading to the start of a virtual learning platform where students will be able to take classes from our network partners, work in global virtual teams, and connect with other leading universities, faculty and students without having to engage in physical travel.

However, in contrast to many, if not most, universities, NTU has successfully kept our doors open thanks to a high degree of precautionary measures and flexibility on the part of staff and students.

As we settle into the new normal and begin to wonder what might be next, NTU and Taiwan’s positive experience in epidemic prevention show that it is possible to maintain in-person teaching even when the threat of coronavirus continues.

We must prepare for a world when face-to-face learning is no longer an option, but this eventuality is, by no means, inevitable.

Indeed, preparations for the next semester are well under way as Taiwan reopens its borders to international students from low- and medium-risk countries. This will require all incoming students to undergo 14 days of quarantine, with NTU leaving nothing to chance, from organising airport pickup services and pre-arranged quarantine sites to offering financial support for low-income students and language and cultural courses that can be started virtually during quarantine and completed later in person. So far, we have already assisted 350 international students, and we expect a total of 1,500 this autumn.

NTU has shown that, as infection rates fall to manageable levels, rigorous hygiene measures, robust screening and joined-up institutional planning can allow university campuses to reopen safely.

It will take effort and resolve, but the face-to-face teaching that students want and expect can take place as planned this autumn.

Cher Chiu is head of global engagement at National Taiwan University’s Office of International Affairs.

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