Students have mixed feelings about university reopening date

Algerian students have mixed feelings about the government’s plans for the gradual reopening of universities in the wake of lengthy coronavirus-related closures.

In an informal questionnaire conducted by the General Union of Free Students (UGEL) in Algeria, 54.9% of 1,963 student respondents from various universities rejected the reopening universities on 23 August, while 30.9% agreed with it on condition there was strict application of health protection and social distancing measures.

Only 6.1% of respondents agreed with the reopening while the remaining percentage (8.1%) expressed different views.

This general questionnaire was included in a comprehensive set of proposals sent to the Algerian Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research.

In consultation with the National Federation of University Teachers (FNEU) and the National Union of Teachers and University Hospital Researchers (SNECHU), the Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research Abdelbaki Benziane announced on 13 July a "gradual" resumption of educational activities in "strict" compliance with preventive measures and depending on changes in the health and epidemiological situation, and the specifics of higher education institutions and the regions in which they are located.

Communicating with University World News via Messenger, a UGEL representative said students were concerned that it was impossible to implement the health protocols announced by the ministry.

The representative said the students anticipated it would be difficult to “control the student environment in terms of adherence to procedures on campuses, university housing and student transport buses”. There was also concern about the “lack of capabilities for protection and maintaining safe distancing among students”.

On 12 July, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Algeria was 19,689 with 1,017 deaths. The total of cured patients was 14,019.

"Given the gravity of the epidemiological situation, I think that it would be extremely difficult to comply with the precautionary and preventive measures in universities’ campuses where students study in close proximity to each other," said Hana Saada, a doctoral student at the University of Algiers Benyoucef Benkhedda.

"For me, the plan for resuming in-campus activities is premature and will be multifaceted and numerous scenarios will need to be considered.

"Following the recklessness of students and the lack of sanitary means and detection tools, the situation could get out of control and cause a rise in the number of infections.

"As economic activities resumed recently at the demand of traders and consumers, a sharp and noticeable increase in infections was recorded nationwide," Saada said. "I suggest that courses remain paused until the situation becomes fully under control with a view to preserving the lives of people."

Suggested measures

Via Messenger, a representative of the Free Algerian Student Organization (FASO), said: "Returning to university seats in light of the corona crisis, whether to complete the university season 2019-2020 or university entry 2020-2021, remains a hostage of the health situation in the country as student health is the first priority, but it does not hide the fact that the whole world has moved towards coexistence with the virus but with great caution and taking due precautions.

"We in the organisation have presented a roadmap to the ministry that focuses on a gradual return including dividing students into different batches so they attend classes in groups at different times, and teaching hours have been extended to 6pm to enhance social distancing.”

The roadmap includes the establishment of a national health crisis unit consisting of representatives of social partners under the supervision of the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research which has branches at university level to monitor health status within higher education institutions, according to FASO.

A ‘beautiful’ solution

Algerian mathematician Professor Sadallah Boubaker-Khaled, based at the École Normale Supérieure in Algiers, said while the government’s proposals for resumption of learning look “beautiful”, the reality was not so tidy.

"There are universities that did not complete the first semester, while others have [started] part of the second semester … There are supposed to be lesson reviews for a week or two and then exams take place … How is that? Nobody now knows what the situation will be like with the virus,” he said.

However, he agreed with the notion of reducing the duration of classes and dividing students into smaller groups for in-person teaching.

"I think that the big problem will be in accommodating students because university housing is generally crowded, but bringing students in two batches may be part of the solution. However, I do not see how this can be done.

"The bottom line is that everyone is working hard, including the ministry, students and professors, and we cannot determine the best solution as long as we do not know the direction of the spread of the virus."