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Monday, April 6, 2020
ILLINOIS, United States, Mar 11 2020 (IPS) - Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to lead by example and to provide current, high-quality information to the people and communities that support them. This responsibility is no clearer than during a public health and information crisis like the one presented by this novel coronavirus.
State and local governments in particular should be able to rely on Universities for guidance on protective evidence-based precautionary measures, whether it’s cancelling events, closing schools or formulating public health postings.
The University of Washington officially announced that it would cancel its in-person classes due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak that has affected more than 70 people in the state. Some 50,000 students are expected to take their finals and attend classes remotely.
We are not the only country preparing in this way and already globally, nearly 300 million students are out of school due to precautions over the spread of coronavirus, and this number is expected to continue to rise.
As we read the news and see the alerts on campuses in particular, with one of us being an Assistant Professor who is teaching an in-person class, it is starting to sink in that this class may soon have to move online. I realize that anytime soon, my students may not be able to attend in class in person. Professors are already exchanging tips and resources on how to transition courses online.
Some courses may weather the transition fine, but we still wonder how prepared is our education system to deal with coronavirus? It is undeniable that the educational system of today is built on a foundation of in-person community/group-based learning. How can we ensure that the rush to complete this transition in the face of a pandemic does not exacerbate barriers and leave students behind?
What does this new normal mean to the underprivileged, especially to people of color and underrepresented minorities, who may not have access to the internet to attend or listen to lectures, should in-person classes be moved online?
Unfortunately, services, such as free access to library computers and other typical university technology support will also be inaccessible to prevent the spread of the viruses.
Small business-as-usual tweaks to a curriculum will not be tenable solutions. This challenge requires solutions that consider underprivileged students first when planning transitions away from the traditional classroom, and this transition must be supported by intense empathy for students.
Like any new normal, the anxiety that comes along is high. It is high for students, faculty members, administrators, and university chancellors. We must recognize that, like us, our students are scared for themselves, for their vulnerable loved ones and for the continuity of their education.
As important, applicable and exciting as we all believe our classes are, we need to adjust our deadlines and expectations in line with our new reality. No line in a syllabus is worth upholding if it will increase student anxiety during a growing global pandemic.
The truth is, there are more questions than answers.
One thing for sure is that no matter the outcome, this moment will shape our education system. Like any change, new models by which education and classes are delivered to students will arise.
Those with power in academia, from a university president to a teaching assistant, have an opportunity to lead us through this crisis with a vision that at its core accessible and empathetic. These decisions cannot be made lightly, as what we do now will certainly shake the foundation upon which our educational system is built upon.
Dr. Esther Ngumbi (@EstherNgumbi) is an Assistant Professor at the Entomology Department and African American Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She is a Senior Food security fellow with the Aspen Institute.
Dr. Brian Lovett (@lovettbr) is a recent PhD from the University of Maryland Department of Entomology. His work has contributed to the advancement of transgenic mosquito-killing fungi for malaria prevention.
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