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Australian universities begin moving classes online to tackle COVID-19 outbreak

Various universities have cancelled classes this week to get ready for the move to online learning environments.

Universities across Australia have begun transitioning towards online classes in a bid to minimise the spread of COVID-19.

In New South Wales, the University of Sydney (USyd) announced on late Monday afternoon that there will be no face-to-face teaching on campus starting from March 23, in emails to staff and students.

For units of study with labs, studios, and other practical course components, online or remote arrangements will be put in place or will be suspended to later in the semester, or the year, USyd vice chancellor and principal Michael Spence said.

USyd will continue to remain open however, with its Wi-Fi network, libraries, computer labs, research, and study spaces to still be available for staff and students. 

"These are unique and challenging circumstances for us all. I want to assure you that our staff are working hard to ensure that you receive an excellent online teaching and learning experience. We are confident our teaching staff and infrastructure can support your studies as you would expect from us," Spence said.  

USyd staff will also be entitled to an additional 10 days special leave to support them in dealing with the impacts of COVID-19.

Elsewhere in New South Wales, the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) and Macquarie University have paused face-to-face teaching until March 24 and March 30, respectively, to improve online delivery to support social distancing.

See also: How Asia Pacific airlines are handling coronavirus travel restrictions

Meanwhile, the University of New South Wales (UNSW) will continue to operate as normal despite confirming that a third student has contracted COVID-19 on Monday. 

"NSW Health has today advised us that a UNSW student has tested positive for COVID-19," the university said in an email to staff and students.

"The student attended a 3-hour EDST6922 class from 5-8 pm on Monday 9 March at Matthews 308 on our Kensington campus. They exhibited mild symptoms while on campus, became unwell that evening and did not attend campus today."

UNSW said it is continuing to operate and explore options to minimise face-to-face interactions, but it has not officially moved classes online. 

In Victoria, La Trobe, Monash, and Swinburne universities announced that all classes from this week have been cancelled to allow its staff to prepare for online teaching. 

Swinburne University will suspend lectures until next week, while those at La Trobe and Monash will be recorded and made available online. From March 24, all classes and lectures for these universities will be moved online.

For Melbourne University, it began ceasing all face-to-face lectures and classes with more than 500 students from Tuesday. It plans to record these lectures and make them available to students online. 

It is also progressively transitioning other lectures, classes, and seminars with more than 25 students to online delivery by March 23, while tutorials with up to 25 students and specialist teaching and learning sessions will continue to remain on campus.

The University of Tasmania, Edith Cowan University (ECU), and Australia National University (ANU) have also announced that they have begun moving their classes online due to COVID-19.

"Today we will begin the transition to full online course delivery and staffing, on the basis of our model of split teams and working from home," the University of Tasmania said in a statement.

ECU will also begin transitioning its larger lectures and classes to online from March 23. All other teaching activities will continue as normal on its campuses, adjusted for hygiene practices and social distancing, the university said.  

ANU, meanwhile, said it will move most of its large classes, as well as some smaller classes and tutorials, online. 

"This week we are going to start to push for fully online delivery of many of our large classes and look at those smaller classes and tutorials, where social distancing is hard," ANU vice chancellor Brian Schmidt told staff and students in an email on Monday afternoon.

ANU staff and students who are currently overseas for university purposes, including those on exchange, have also been told to return to Australia, Schmidt said. 

Tthe Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has also moved all very large lectures to live-stream across its two campuses "where possible". From March 23 the university will provide all lectures online and there will be no more student attendance at lectures. 

QUT will remain in online mode for lectures for the remainder of its first semester while its libraries, computer labs, and student support areas will remain open and operate as usual.

See also: Canberra coughs up AU$2.4b health package to fight COVID-19

While universities have made efforts to minimise the spread of COVID-19 through online classes, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday morning that schools and universities will continue to remain open as all arrangements, likely in place for at least six months, need to be "scalable and sustainable".

"When it comes to managing [schools], it is about being scalable and sustainable. Many measures you put in place, you must be prepared to put it in place for at least six months and that means you've got to do it and make sure you can continue to have a functioning country," Morrison said. 

These moves across the country follow sweeping orders in places such as Italy, Spain, and parts of the US to close schools and universities, as well as hospitality establishments. 

As of Wednesday, Australia's National Cabinet has accepted advice from health authorities that non-essential indoor gatherings of greater than 100 people will no longer be permitted. For outdoor gatherings, there must be fewer than 500 attendees in order for them to proceed. 

State and territory governments will give further guidance and rules for these gatherings, Morrison said. 

Morrison also addressed the unprecedented demand for groceries and household staples, saying the National Cabinet strongly advises against the bulk purchase of foods, medicines, and other goods. 

"We strongly discourage the panic purchase of food and other supplies. While some advice has been provided to have a small addition of long shelf-life products in the case of illness there are a range of mechanisms in place to support people in self-isolation, including food and other deliveries," Morrison said.

"Stop hoarding, I can't be more blunt about it, stop it," he added during a press conference.

The Australian government also expanded its Medicare-approved telehealth services to provide midwives, new specialist services, as well as access to services from a person's regular clinic for eligible populations.

The telehealth service is currently available for people in home isolation or quarantine due to COVID-19 to receive health consultations via the phone or video such as FaceTime or Skype. It is also available to people aged over 70, people with chronic diseases, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged over 50, people who are immunocompromised, and pregnant people and new parents with babies. 

Updated 18 March 2020 5:45 pm (AEDT):  added information from the Queensland University of Technology