Universities, schools close in the wake of COVID-19 surge

While the COVID-19 health emergency committee has called for a one-month suspension of studies at universities and schools in Sudan to combat the spread of the coronavirus, the ministry of higher education and scientific research has granted an exemption to universities with e-learning capability, instances where exams have been announced and essential administrative work.

The qualifying institutions must adhere to the COVID-19 health requirements that include the wearing of masks and practising social distancing.

The decision in May comes after an increase in COVID-19 cases indicated by the Corona Tracker that showed that, officially, Sudan had registered 35,071 cases of the disease, including 2,568 fatalities, by 22 May. Sudan is among the top 10 African countries with the highest fatality rates, as of 20 May.

According to the Reuters COVID-19 tracker, Sudan has vaccinated 0.3% of its population of about 45 million, according to a vaccination eligibility plan in which teachers are prioritised in the second group.

First in line are some essential workers, the elderly and other highly vulnerable groups as indicated on the May 2021 UNESCO COVID-19 vaccination map.

Activities suspended for a month

As a result, some universities, including the Ahfad University for Women, have announced the suspension of all academic activities, including classes and exams for undergraduate and postgraduate students starting on 19 May.

On the same day, the University of Khartoum announced on Facebook that all examinations announced at bachelor, diploma, and postgraduate levels are to be taken on time.

The Sudan University of Science and Technology suspended face-to-face learning in all its higher learning institutions and will continue with online education.

On 20 May, the Omdurman Islamic University announced on its Facebook page that all the exams planned will take place taken under strict health precautions and e-learning will be used to complete teaching of courses. Student registration will take place online.

Timely action

Ebaidalla Mahjoub Ebaidalla, an associate professor of economics at the University of Khartoum, told University World News that, “in the light of the fragile health system in Sudan, the decision to suspend studies at universities is timely to suppress the outbreak of the new coronavirus strain”.

Sudanese educational technology expert Mohd Eltahir, the associate dean in the college of humanities and sciences at the Ajman University in the United Arab Emirates, welcomed the measures.

“There are great obstacles facing the university educational process in the light of the corona pandemic, including a high density of students,” he said.

In addition to a lack of medical care and a poor healthcare system, this factor could make educational institutions ‘ideal’ places for an outbreak, he added.

Echoing these sentiments, Jamil Salmi, a tertiary education expert and former World Bank tertiary education coordinator, said the priority is to keep the university safe – “even if it means closing down the campus and shutting down most university activities”.

Flexible approach

Eltahir said: “Exceptions [in the cases of e-learning, exams and administrative work] will minimise disruption at universities, especially at the end of the academic year and the beginning of the final exams.

Universities can work to divide students into shifts throughout the week to reduce the numbers in each class while following precautionary measures for fear of further disruptions of study, which has been already unstable since the outbreak of the pandemic.”

Ebaidalla said higher education institutions that have facilities to adopt distance education should be given an advantage to resume their work. “However, instability of internet connections and a lack of coverage in some regions of the country hinder virtual education.”

Eltahir also questioned the viability of distance education as an alternative due to the lack of appropriate infrastructure due to its high costs, in addition to other problems related to the instability of electricity.

Salmi said: “The challenge in Sudan is that universities suffer from regular power cuts and have uneven internet connections.

“These obstacles apply even more to a large cohort of students, and perhaps of academics as well. So, it may be difficult to provide good quality online teaching and learning under these difficult circumstances.”

Salmi said the pandemic has amplified disparities among countries, higher education institutions and students, according to the findings of his November 2020 study on the impact of Covid-19 on universities worldwide.

According to Ebaidalla, the ways of learning have changed owing to the new normal of COVID-19. Higher education institutions need to adapt and shift to online learning.

He emphasised that the government should enhance online education, “which can be an important strategy to respond to learning shocks resulting from pandemics and events in the future”.

Salmi said he hoped that the ministry would be able to step in and provide financial and technical support to all universities and students to maintain education continuity.