COVID 19 upsurge, schools reopening, and the need to protect older university lecturers. Is the fight winning or we are winning
Ghana appears to have made a turn for the worse in its fight against the corona virus pandemic. Electioneering activities plus weddings, engagements, parties, and funerals that were all waiting to be redeemed once the covid restrictions were lifted added to the uptick in cases.
It was hence not far-fetched that this surge in positive corona virus infections and deaths was bound to happen. According to the John Hopkins University tallies of global corona virus statistics (culled February 15th, 2021), 36% of Ghana’s 533 deaths has occurred in the past month alone. 25% of the 75836 total cases recorded so far was reported within the last month. The recent reopening of schools presents the greatest challenge yet in efforts to combat this virus.
Schools are, of course, one of the most viable hotspots in the spread of this virus. In schools, you have large numbers of students who are kept in enclosed spaces for an average 6 to 7 hours, five times in a week. The conditions are even dire in our tertiary institutions where you have large numbers of students sitting shoulder to shoulder in lecture rooms with a spillover that can go as far as down the hallway. These students also visit the offices of lecturers for consultations, adding to the potential spread of the virus.
When one considers the conditions that could potentially prevail at student hostels and halls of residence, the complexity of the management of the cases could not escape your guess. The universities also have numerous offices where common resources such as phones are shared among office occupants. It is no wonder that the universities are presented with a monumental challenge in managing a delicately complex situation. In these universities, you have many lecturers who are 60 years and over (the most vulnerable age group known to be prone to dying from the COVID 19).
Older university lecturers need to be protected and respected in these difficult times. The onus is on everyone on university campuses to ensure that this group of lecturers does not catch the virus and get sick—or even die from it. These lecturers possess valuable knowledge and experience they still pass on to younger lecturers and students. They, in fact, make up a fair percentage of the total lecturer population on university campuses. It was therefore a bit of a disappointment to some people that the universities in Ghana have returned to mainly in-person tutoring as opposed to virtual—which is a lot safer.
The University of Namibia, for instance, took this step but had to return to full virtual teaching when they recorded a significant number of virus infections barely weeks into reopening.
We had hoped that the universities in Ghana would find other potential ways – aside the Zoom and Teams virtual classes which were unfavorable to students of rural areas of the country – of administering remote teaching and learning. One of the simplest means would be a series of video recorded lectures that cover the syllabus for the semester. With a white board – and a marker for illustrations where necessary – lecturers should be able to make these videos from their offices, at home, or specially designed studios on campus.
These videos could then be shared on class WhatsApp platforms. Students who may not have access to internet services could obtain these recordings on data sticks and access the contents of the drives from computers wherever they find themselves in the country. The Zoom and Teams meetings could be arranged occasionally to answer questions that may arise from the lecture recordings. The mode of conduct of examinations will be the one thing left to decide on.
Regarding the conduct of examinations, Ghanaian universities need to diversify their curriculum by including more critical thinking components in assessing students. This pandemic offers that opportunity; graduate studies and, to some extent, final and third year undergraduate students could benefit more from knowledge integration via group projects, presentations, and report writings.
These can form a core of their assessments in place of sit-in exams. For lower-level classes, a series of short exams (maybe 45 minutes’ durations) could be conducted throughout the semester and the aggregate taken to represent the final score.
With this mode of exam, there will be no need for longer duration mid-term (and end of term) exams where students are seated for at least 2 hours at a time. These adjustments will smoothen student assessment stuff and potentially help manage the pandemic.
Catching this virus and surviving it is not the point. Many people make this terrible mistake. People survive but still suffer lingering conditions (“long COVID” condition is an example). It will be unfortunate for older lecturers—in fact, anybody—to be taken ill with this virus. Aside the time lost to teaching while recovering, there may be further time lost to regaining normal functioning.
This must be avoided considering the structure of the 2020/21 academic year. To this end, I propose the following in dealing with COVID 19 infection and spread:
1. Many classes can still – and should – be held 100% virtually. Graduate courses and some third and final year courses will pass for this.
2.More critical thinking components should be incorporated into the teaching schedule. Projects, presentations, report writings should be considered.
3. A series of exams (30-45 minutes duration), in place of one-time long duration exams, should be introduced. This could have an added benefit of saving students from infections; the stressful and anxiety-filled end of term examination periods – during which the body’s immunity is usually low – would have been eliminated.
4. All coffee rooms and eateries on campus MUST BE CLOSED. Those are proven hotspots all over the world. Restaurants on campus can stay open but only for pick ups and deliveries.
5. The number of people working at a time in offices should be reduced by considering shift, rotation, and working from home options.
6. Student-lecturer interactions should be limited to the barest minimum. Vice-Chancellors, provosts, heads of departments etc. should, as much as possible, entertain consultations via phone and other virtual platforms. Offices must SURELY avoid using shared phones (landlines).
7. Meetings should be conducted virtually. In an academic institution, this practice should be 100% possible.
These suggestions, and potential others, if followed, could help slow the spread of this deadly virus and buy us time until vaccines reach our shores.
All universities in Ghana must be determined to stay open and to manage any difficult situation regarding COVID 19 infections. Universities worldwide are managing their peculiar COVID 19 challenges while they remain open. Our academic calendar must as much as possible be on par with the others.
This is not the time to be selfish. Students are relatively younger and may potentially be able to survive this disease, but they should understand that being careful is not for their benefit alone. It is to the benefit and protection of everyone.
Additionally, this is not the time to be putting unnecessary stress on people. This time requires tolerance and consideration for people’s short comings. Anxiety levels are already high. We must not act in a way as to add to the situation. Whatever you must do to keep your colleague upbeat is what is required. Little acts of kindness and thoughtfulness will go a long way to save a friend or family. We can only get through this as a united people.
SOURCE: Samuel Bansah
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