Education

Universities to start phased reopening, but is it too soon?

 

Daniel Tonga

The Zambian government’s plan to start reopening universities on 1 July has sparked concerns among lecturer unions and students that the move comes too early, and could see COVID-19 spread like wildfire among the student body and academics.

“We are going ahead opening universities by July 1, it will be done in phases and manner based on the preparedness of universities,” Dr Brian Mushimba, the Higher Education Minister told University World News, adding that the government had given universities a month’s notice of its plans.

“It appears COVID-19 is here for a long time, so we need to embrace the new normal. Our policy on education in this time of COVID-19 is that online learning will continue to be used as an integral part of the learning process for graduating students and those in other years,” he said. “Universities and colleges will adopt virtual graduation tools amid the coronavirus and students who paid tuition fees for [the past] semester [where they] needed a physical presence in the university, will be refunded.”

President Edgar Lungu announced the re-opening of physical classes on 1 June, saying classes for graduating students preparing for examinations should be opened first. Classes had been closed under a lockdown starting on 20 March.

Sitali Wamundila, a registrar at the University of Zambia (UNZA), disclosed that the institution would only ease its lockdown according to guidance from the Ministry of Higher Education. “Graduating students will be the first to commence lessons and write their exams based on an approved calendar. International students and all other students will continue with online learning,” he said in a statement to University World News.

Dr Kelvin Mambwe, general secretary of the University of Zambia Lecturers and Researchers’ Union (UNZALARU) in the capital Lusaka, warned that the government and universities needed to be very cautious about lifting the lockdown: “COVID-19 will explode if government ends the lockdown. In fact, at UNZA there is poor sanitation, no water, and social distancing is not possible because we have a lot of students in classes. We have an accommodation crisis: students are squatting because of lack of bed space at the institution,” he told University World News.

As of 16 June, Zambia had 1,405 cases of COVID-19, with 11 deaths, 252 active cases and 1,142 recoveries, according to the Ministry of Health, and there is no sign of the pandemic ending.

Lawrence Kasonde, president of the students’ union at Copperbelt University (CBU), Kitwe, northern Zambia, said ending the lockdown on 1 July could be too early as proper health measures were not in place: “It is not a right idea for us to open because we can’t ensure social distance. At CBU we have 2,100 bed spaces against over 10,000 students and keeping two students in a small room means it might be difficult to observe social distance,” he said.

Copperbelt University has announced that only registered and final-year students would be admitted from 22 June for full-time learning.

Helen Mukumba, a registrar at Copperbelt University, said re-opening would follow health guidelines and conditions set by the Ministry of Health: “All students are required to provide their own face masks, ensure social distancing and wash hands with soap and water or use alcohol-based sanitiser,” she said in a statement.

Dr Aaron Mujajati, a specialist physician at CAREPEAK Specialist Clinic, Lusaka, also raised concerns about lifting the lockdown, saying: “It is not the right time and the situation is not conducive. Cases are fluctuating each day with a possibility of having more cases if measures are not in place. In fact, further testing would record more cases,” Mujajati said. “Cases might rise now that the [southern hemisphere] country is entering the cold season,” he warned.

While the Ministry of Health is authorised to undertake testing, this has been moving slowly, due to limited testing kits. This is despite a US government grant of US$14.5 million to fight COVID-19. In addition, the African Development Bank (AfDB) has committed US$37.5 million, whilst the World Bank has made available US$57.60 million under its COVID-19 emergency health support. Britain has pledged US$37.5 million, according to Zambia’s Finance Ministry.

Mujajati said that while Zambia had few cases there was no “guarantee that cases will not rise, so lockdown should be maintained”.

In the meantime, higher education institutions have been struggling to digitalise learning, with the process being impeded by weak internet services and inconsistent and erratic power supply.

Mambwe said online learning has been “the only option…to beat time and keep students learning amid COVID-19. We teach online, [and] quizzes are taken online through online portal,” he told University World News.

UNZALARU is using Google Classroom and Zoom video conferencing for a minimum of one-hour teaching, whilst students receive and submit assignments through Moodle, a course assignment system.

However, Mambwe said students doing research and writing final papers were finding it difficult because access to libraries is limited.

Students have also been hit hard by load-shedding (rolling power cuts). Zambia faces a power deficit of 810 megawatts, causing all sectors to lose electricity supply from time to time. The country’s state power utility company ZESCO has been rationing power to meet growing demand but this has affected student’s learning as many are unable to access the internet when there is no power.

Attempts to forge partnerships between universities and mobile telephony providers to deliver online learning have had mixed results. The University of Zambia, Mulungushi University and Copperbelt University have partnered with mobile provider MTN Zambia to offer internet learning services, for instance, but this deal has excluded students who are not MTN subscribers.

Kasonde said different mobile service users had struggled: “It’s a 50-50 situation: some universities have the capacity to conduct online learning amidst COVID-19 but it’s not every student who is able to participate. Those in rural areas cannot afford internet and buying data is expensive,” he stressed. “Rolling blackouts have also complicated the situation.”

The lockdown has created financial problems for staff and institutions.

Mambwe, who is a linguistics lecturer at UNZA said: “Some lecturers at UNZA have not been paid their arrears for two months, and salaries have been delayed. Even if the university opens, no one would be willing to teach in person.”

However, the minister, Mushimba, said the government has been supporting state-owned universities during the lockdown through grants to provide salaries for lecturers and staff: “CBU and UNZA are grant-aided institutions and there have been no problems.” However, he accepted that some teachers in private institutions were “sent on forced unpaid leave” because institutions could not afford salaries due to cash flow problems.

Vincent Bizimana, a lecturer in accounting and business at DMI-St Eugene, a private institution in Lusaka, said lecturers were receiving all payments, but students were experiencing challenges adjusting to online learning. “Internet is a challenge because students can’t connect. Other students find the buying of phones and computers expensive. This precludes them from learning online,” he told University World News.