New Delhi: India is currently home to at least 150 people who have tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus. Thus far, the government has claimed India hasn’t had any community transmission and is only dealing with local transmission and ‘important cases’. However, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) has also said it is only a matter of time, that “community transmission is inevitable”.
To contain the spread, therefore, the Centre and many state governments across the country have shut down commercial establishments where people can gather socially, invoked legal instruments to keep people from ‘escaping’ quarantine or isolation in hospital wards and recommended people practice social-distancing and maintain personal hygiene.
Universities, institutes and colleges are attempting to do the same – but where other institutions have been guided by an explicit government policy, India’s principal centres of education are each doing only what they think is best.
In Maharashtra, the state that has registered the highest number of people with COVID-19 in India thus far, ongoing university examinations have been postponed. Haryana and Punjab have also announced that all universities and schools will remain closed till March 31.
As an example of an exception, the ITS Dental College in Greater Noida continues to conduct most classes. “We are being asked to come everyday,” one postgraduate student said. “There are several hundred people around us. The situation is scary. We have raised the issue with the administration but they are not ready to suspend classes.”
Where physically proximate classes are no longer an option, universities are resorting to online sessions using tools like Google Hangouts, Skype and Zoom.
Amity University in Noida has asked all students to stay home and attend online classes being conducted through Microsoft Teams, a communication platform for companies.
The National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), a postgraduate research institute in Bangalore, has suspended in-person classes until April 15. The administration has instead set up accounts on Zoom and virtual teaching is expected to begin soon.
“Our classes are limited in size, typically 20 or fewer. We have subscriptions to several Zoom accounts that will enable multiple classes to run simultaneously at full capacity,” Mukund Thattai, the head of academics at NCBS, told The Wire Science. “We do not expect any issues in starting online classes. We are just beginning to implement these, we will learn from feedback and improve.”
The Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, has asked its students to vacate the hostels and go home. And “it is not clear that all of them have good internet access at home,” Sunil Mukhi, a professor at the institute’s department of physics, said. So online classes are not an option, and the institute anticipates the academic session could be pushed forward for as long as the campus remains closed.
Online classes can also be difficult to implement for certain courses which require students to be present in laboratories. “Not everything can be done online. You can’t conduct experiments, etc., and for certain courses, those are essential,” a professor of chemistry at a state university said. “The students learn in the laboratory. So the academic session is bound to get delayed. There is no other way.”
Adapting in-person courses for virtual instruction is its own beast. “It’s very difficult. Teaching online is not the same, it’s not as effective,” a teacher of communications at a private institute in Uttar Pradesh said. “Sometimes, students also mute teachers or each other. We don’t even find out or find out later and there is very little that we can do in an online class.”
This teacher’s curriculum includes group discussions to be graded at the end of the term, which is around now for most institutes. And when these discussions happen online? “It’s a mockery, basically. Students are talking over each other. They are not following the format of the group discussion,” the teacher said. “We don’t know how to mark them because, for a group discussion, the format is key.”
In a different sort of trouble for instructors, some universities and research institutes have required them, as well as non-teaching staff, to continue to report to campuses. This issue was the subject of a letter written by Delhi university teachers on Sunday to their vice-chancellor, asking they be allowed to work from home. The university accepted their demands a day later.
But this isn’t the case in most other places, where teachers are still required to report to work. Many have even been asked to come to campus with their laptops to hold their lectures online, and they aren’t impressed.
“Students don’t need to attend lectures, exams have been postponed, but we are still required to go to college everyday?” an assistant professor at a college in Mumbai, affiliated to Mumbai University, said on condition of anonymity.
This correspondent found this to be the case in several private institutes in smaller cities and towns around the country.
“The online classes can be conducted from home also. But [the administration] insists that teachers be present on campus,” one teacher at the department of English in Mumbai University’s Kalina campus told The Wire Science.
“Classes have been suspended until April 2 but faculty members have been coming in for their routine work,” the head of a private management institute said.
Savita Mehta, vice-president of communications at Amity University, Noida, which has also asked its students to stay home, told The Wire Science that the institute has asked teachers to come to the campus for online classes because they “may not have high speed internet at home”.
Then wouldn’t this problem apply for students as well? “Yes but the syllabus has to be completed. We have 25,000 students and 3,000 teachers, so we are reducing the risk for 25,000 by not asking them to come,” Mehta said.
According to her, the administration has also been “regularly asking faculty members” if they feel okay or if they’ve come in contact with anyone who recently travelled abroad. “We are also checking their temperature. We are taking precautions.”
The Amity University campus in Kolkata is in a soup of its own. The West Bengal government invoked the Epidemic Diseases Act 1897 and directed all educational institutions in the state to shut until at least April 15. Amity University, however, has drawn flak for – again – requiring its teaching and non-teaching staff to teach online from within the campus.
The situation at Industrial Technical Institutes (ITIs) is even more surprising: many in Uttar Pradesh have shut for students but not without asking their instructors to maintain their attendance.
The government set up ITIs in 1969 to produce the country’s workforce for industrialisation.
Some 1,500 students of one ITI in Meerut have been asked to stay home “but the teachers are required to be present,” its vice-principal Bani Singh Chauhan said, because “they might be required by the government for awareness activities.”
A teacher at a private institute in Dehradun called this paradigm a “quirk of the management”.
Thus far, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has not issued any directives to higher education institutions around India about dealing effectively with the COVID-19 outbreak. District administrations and state governments have filled in and issued orders and directives to suspend classes in certain parts. But a uniform policy to deal with the situation remains conspicuously absent.