The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked the world to the core, causing not only public health emergencies across the globe but also severe economic disruption.
The educational sector is one of many that is facing an uphill struggle. Schools, colleges, and universities -- as well as other adult training providers -- have had to rethink how teaching can go ahead when the most basic premise, packing individuals into a room, is no longer possible while adhering to social distancing measures.
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Digital learning and virtual platforms, once considered simply useful tools, are now becoming critical components in the creation of new approaches to delivering courses.
As previously noted by ZDNet's Larry Dignan, as the confirmed cases of COVID-19 has now surpassed five million and continues to spread, educational institutions have had little warning or time to overhaul existing learning mechanisms -- forcing organizations to take a crash course of their own in virtual education options.
There are many challenges: how to maintain social distancing measures, how to train and ensure lecturers and seminar leaders are able to provide high-quality education, what tools they need, and how to uphold the student experience itself -- as we know, attending university is also about education outside of the classroom.
The ongoing nature of the pandemic means that education providers have no option but to face and solve these problems as they come to the best of their abilities. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United States' public health regulator, has offered pointers on what the agency views as the best ways to get education back on track.
This week, the CDC published a guide (.PDF) on the US government's response to COVID-19, as well as a set of separate documents with recommended school and university practices designed to reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, how to maintain healthy operations and environments.
The US agency's guidelines for universities are geared towards what can be considered the "lowest risk" activities, which enforce social distancing through virtual learning options. The CDC considers small, in-personal classes as "more" risky, whereas full-sized classes and activities are considered of the "highest" risk for potential COVID-19 infection.
According to the agency, university staff, lecturers, and faculty members should be encouraged to work from home and teleconference whenever possible, especially if they are considered to be in a high-risk band for severe illness caused by COVID-19.
"Replace in-person meetings with video- or teleconference calls whenever possible," the CDC urges. "Provide student support services virtually, as feasible."
The agency has also recommended that universities explore flexible work schedules and learning hours to make keeping six feet away from others a more realistic possibility. Staggered work shifts and classes are mentioned as examples of how this concept can be applied.
"Offer distance learning in addition to in-person classes to help reduce the number of in-person attendees," the CDC says.
Students and employees alike are asked to dismiss public transport options in favor of walking, cycling, or travel by car.
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Residencies should be closed, when feasible, to reduce the risk of spread, the agency says. If universities choose to offer "any version of in-person classes" rather than virtual alternatives, before returning to campus, "students, faculty, and staff who have been sick with COVID-19 symptoms, tested positive for COVID-19, or have been potentially exposed to someone with COVID-19" should be encouraged to self-isolate, to stay at home, or stay in their dorms.
Universities have also been asked to post signs to promote general hygiene practices and to both "recommend and reinforce" the wearing of cloth face masks on campus among students, faculty, and staff, as well as ramp up existing disinfectant and cleaning schedules.
Communal areas should be closed, the CDC says, and physical barriers should be erected when social distancing is a difficult prospect.
As packed cafeterias could be a ripe area for the virus to spread, it is recommended that grab-and-go options, rather than buffets or self-serve stations, are made available.
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Campus bar meet-ups and festivals may be a thing of the past, with virtual groups encouraged as an alternative, with limited group sizing in person and a six-foot distance maintained where possible.
Visitors, too, are likely to face increased scrutiny with non-essential visitors, volunteers, and activities advised to be curtailed and limited, "especially with individuals who are not from the local geographic area," the CDC says.
The agency also recommends that academic institutions appoint a "COVID-19 Point of Contact" who can answer any questions or concerns from higher education students and employees.
"CDC is continuing to work with state, tribal, local, and territorial leaders to provide technical assistance, and resources that can help support decisions about how Americans begin to re-engage in civic life while adhering to mitigation strategies such as social distancing, hand-washing and wearing face coverings," the agency added.
The United Kingdom, too, is exploring the ramifications of COVID-19 on the next academic year's intake of students.
More than one in five students are already considering deferring their studies for a year if campuses are not operating normally.
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Cambridge University, one of the most well-known red brick institutions alongside Oxford and Imperial, has decided to keep lectures online until 2021. Small seminar groups may be possible but only if social distancing measures can be maintained.
In Scotland, some educational establishments are considering a delay to the start of the academic year, dependent on upcoming government advice.
UK universities have been warned by educational regulator the Office for Students that they must provide clarity to students on whether their courses will be on campus, virtual, or a mix. The government is allowing full tuition fees to be charged, which is up to £10,000 ($12,279) per year.
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