Covid and caution: how we can use universities safely

Steps to take to ensure the safety of those who may be arriving back on campuses around the world in 2021

For everyone at university, whether they’re staff or a student, the future looks uncertain. Universities across the world are transitioning to work through the ‘new normal’ of the world. This involves trying to work out how they can allow students to study safely. In the UK, a big problem has been funding, with many institutions relying too much on fees from international students and now facing the prospect of going bust.

Worries

Many universities have been given the freedom to put their own regulations in place. This has resulted in a lot of big decisions happening in a short period of time before students were welcomed back for the autumn term. Some universities were still offering students a full year of teaching, whether the plan was to use a combination of online and face-to-face learning, or in some cases just online. Cambridge University announced that all of its learning would be done online until summer 2021. In India, only one state has allowed its universities to open as the recorded numbers of Covid-19 cases in the country have continued to rise.

Universities have been making the effort to bring students back in the safest way. However, in some cases, it has not been easy to maintain the necessary social distance standards. Masks are mandatory but how safe can they be when the lecture hall is packed, and many late arrivals have to sit on the floor. Students in France have been using the hashtag #Balancetafac (‘call out your uni’) to post photos of their overcrowded learning rooms. Since French universities reopened there has been a dozen clusters of Covid-19 cases.

In the UK, where restrictions are being heavily enforced, many students are upset about what their first-year experience has turned into. One first-year student at the University of Glasgow told the Guardian: ‘Moving up from London, living away from home for the first time, was scary enough without people now saying that we may not be able to home for Christmas. That’s made me really upset and I did have a little sob last night.’

Regulations

If universities want to welcome students and staff back as safely as possible, they need to follow their own government’s rules and regulations. Here are some key rules that universities need to implement before having large levels of staff and students coming back on campus.

1. Social distancing

Limiting the amount of staff and students on the campus entirely is something that needs to be looked at, as well as considering those who may need to shield. assess how many staff and students are vulnerable, and conduct risk assessments. Use floor stickers and signs to make social distancing easy to follow across the whole campus.

2. Welcome international students safely

The total amount of students from other countries may be lower this year, but there will still be many heading to countries outside their own to study. Many will have a mandatory period of self-isolation, or other requirements, to perform when they arrive in their country of study. Ensure your international students are aware of this and that they have the support they need to get through any self-isolation period, such as ensuring they can receive basic food supplies and providing them with books and materials needed for their studies.

3. PPE

Giving students PPE (personal protective equipment) is not something universities need to do, but it should be considered. Knowing all have students face masks and hand sanitiser as they arrive back at campus gives peace of mind and allows students to concentrate on their learning without worrying about where they can get a mask, or where they can next wash their hands.

Of course, this would come at a cost. If every student and member of staff in the UK is provided with a face mask, it will cost around £4,229,933 GBP, assuming that the number of staff and students are at the same level as the previous academic year (2.38 million students and 439,955 staff members) according to data collected by Where The Trade Buys. For hand sanitiser, for each student and staff member to use two squirts of hand sanitiser an hour, the cost would be £355,314 GBP per day. These costs may sound a lot, but it could be a price worth paying to make sure your staff and students feels safe.

4. Online learning

A lot of universities were already recording lectures so students could watch them back, but streaming lectures is an option in full force this year. It allows students to decide whether they feel safe enough to attend a lecture in person. If they don’t, they won’t feel like they are missing out because they can watch the lecture at home. This will also allow people who have to isolate to do that without worrying they are missing valuable learning time too.

There are a lot of unknowns about this academic year, but if universities want to carry on offering education to those paying, following the steps outlined above could be a must. It’s a positive that many universities are trying to get back to face-to-face learning, but this must be followed with the strictest of regulations to make sure it can be done as safely as possible.

Rachel Gray is is a copywriter based in Newcastle Upon Tyne that writes across a variety of sectors such as healthcare, wellness and lifestyle.

How to manage an organisation’s response to COVID-19

Anton Korinek offers advice to organisations and Business Schools on responding to the emerging international situation resulting from Coronavirus or COVID-19

Organisations around the world are working through how to respond to the novel coronavirus, posing one of the greatest challenges to leaders in a long time. Do they restrict travel? Doing so would have substantial financial implication, make months of preparation worthless and lower the morale of many stakeholders who enjoy travel. However, travel is what brought the coronavirus to the country in the first place — and what continues to spread it to new communities within the country.

What about instituting remote work procedures? In-person meetings and events may be a critical part of an organisation’s activities and an important part of the value it offers. Perhaps there are no known cases of the virus in a given community. However, once it does gain a foothold, social distancing is the only way to slow the spread. Carriers of the virus may unwittingly spread it for days before symptoms manifest themselves. 

Above all, one of the greatest challenges is to balance an organisation’s economic concerns with the question of what is ethically the best course of action.

How we got there

The novel coronavirus was first identified in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. It jumped from bats via an intermediate host (most likely pangolins) that was traded in live animal markets to humans. The virus has officially been named SARS-CoV-2, and the disease that it causes has been named “coronavirus disease 2019” (abbreviated COVID-19). It spreads among humans via respiratory droplets from coughing as well as by touching infected surfaces. In an uncontrolled outbreak, the disease burden grows exponentially, with cases doubling approximately every six days. The incubation period, i.e. the time between when one is exposed to the virus and when one develops symptoms of disease, is from two to 14 days, with an average of five days.

Those infected usually present with a fever, a dry cough and general fatigue, frequently involving a mild form of pneumonia. About 15–20% of cases develop more severe pneumonia that requires hospitalisation, intensive care, and in many cases, mechanical ventilation. The latest World Health Organisation estimate of the fatality rate is 3.4%.

Why should organisations take action?

Some may argue that it’s up to individuals how much risk they’re willing to take. But becoming infected affects not only yourself but also endangers others, as infected individuals can spread the disease and expose their community to the substantial risks involved, up to and including premature death. There is thus a crucial ethical component to the public health precautions that individuals and organisations take. Economists call this public health aspect of infectious diseases an externality – in other words an effect on others that an individual or organisation that only cares about their own well-being is tempted to ignore. (A typical example of another type of externality is pollution – when an individual pollutes, society as a whole suffers.)

When an individual spreads the disease it does not impose any cost on them, but costs the newly infected dearly. In fact, the externalities of infectious diseases come in two forms: healthy people not taking sufficient precaution to avoid becoming infected (because they do not internalise the risks this will create for others) and exposed people not taking sufficient precaution to avoid spreading the disease.  

Others may challenge the idea of whether to try to contain the virus at all. The disease seems unstoppable — it has spread around the world in a matter of weeks. Why go to such extreme lengths and incur enormous economic costs to try to prevent the unpreventable? Aren’t we all just caught up in a bad case of mass hysteria that is even more infectious — and pernicious — than the coronavirus itself?  However, that argument neglects all the lives at risk and the extent to which an uncontrolled outbreak risks overwhelming medical resources and exacerbating the ultimate death toll. 

Disproportionate impact

What adds to the challenge on how to respond is the highly disproportionate impact of the disease on different people. The elderly and those with pre-existing conditions are at much greater risk of death from COVID-19 than others. For example, taking into account all the risk factors, a male in his 70s with a heart condition who contracts the virus has a risk of death that is significantly higher – perhaps in excess of 25%. (Useful information on mortality rate by demographics can be found on world statistics site Worldometer.) 

Lessons from China and Italy

The experience of regions that have dealt with large outbreaks of COVID-19 in recent weeks, chiefly Wuhan and northern Italy, suggest two lessons. 

  • First, there is no place for fatalism in epidemiology. The fraction of the population that is ultimately infected by an epidemic is actually quite responsive to mitigation efforts. Wuhan has been able to get the virus under control by imposing tight quarantine measures on its citizens. Italy followed suit recently, with the outcome yet to be determined. 
  • Second, due to the exponential nature of the spread, an uncontrolled outbreak risks overwhelming a country’s health care infrastructure. About 15–20% of identified cases require hospital care. Even in the US, an uncontrolled outbreak would quickly exhaust the capacity of existing ICUs. If this were to happen, the fatality rate of the virus would be bound to rise significantly because sick patients could no longer be adequately treated. This suggests that it is critical to try to slow down the spread to keep the number of patients at any given time more manageable. 

What we should be asking and answering

Organisations need to determine how to answer the following questions:

  • What restrictions do you impose on your organisation’s inward and outward travel and why?
  • At what point will you restrict in-person meetings and events at your organisation? 
  • Should you prepare your stakeholders for these potential changes now?
  • What can you do to make the members of your organisation aware of the externalities that they impose on others, both if they are still healthy and in case they have become exposed to the disease?

The epidemiological realities of the disease have stark implications for organisations. Decisions made now will determine the way that stakeholders will work, travel and interact with each other in coming weeks and months, and it will determine the economic losses companies will experience. And as much as the virus will affect organisations, those organisations’ reaction to it will have a crucial effect on how fast and how widely COVID-19 will spread in their communities, and how many lives will be lost to the disease. This adds a crucial ethical component to the trade-off. Balancing the economic fall-out with this ethical dimension is the most significant leadership challenge of our time.

Anton Korinek is Associate Professor of Business Administration, Darden Business School