In view of the prevailing COVID-19 pandemic, the Vice-Chancellors (VCs) of all the public and private universities have requested the government to provide a special package for universities to enable them to implement the required SOPs effectively and prevent outbreaks on campuses.
The university heads met online to review the compliance of ‘COVID-19 health and safety protocols’ and share the best practices introduced for the safety of students, faculty, and staff against the spread of COVID-19 at their institutions.
Addressing the meeting, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) Chairman, Tariq Banuri, expressed his gratitude for the tremendous leadership demonstrated by the Vice Chancellors in this regard. He said that while the government and HEC had issued comprehensive guidelines, the real test was in the field, and the situation remained under control in most campuses because of the timely and innovative approach taken by university leaders.
Vice-Chancellor of the University of Punjab, Dr. Niaz Akhtar, elaborated on the detailed actions taken to prevent any outbreaks and to isolate and treat any incident. He said that the most critical action was to impress upon all members of the university the importance of observing basic safety protocols like wearing a mask at all times, washing hands frequently, and maintaining social distance.
The universities had to support this by proper observation and surveillance, immediate isolation and medical attention for suspected cases, use of hybrid teaching methods (through financial incentives), giving students the option of attending classes online, and introducing safety measures in dining and other services.
Other Vice-Chancellors shared information on the innovative practices they have introduced on their campuses. These include the development of COVID-19 testing expertise in university labs at the University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, the use of spillover classrooms to reduce density at Peshawar University, providing counseling for students to cope with the prevailing uncertainty and introducing incentives for complying with SOPs at Lahore University of Management Sciences.
Additionally, the use of colored cards for students attending morning and afternoon classes at Karakoram International University, taking advantage of the digitization of processes at Sargodha University to minimize the need for direct contact, and teaching students about COVID and it’s likely future trend at different universities was also encouraged.
Most universities have introduced a rotation policy to reduce the density of students on campus. They have also developed strategies to minimize the risk of outbreaks in hostels, classes, buses, canteens, and dining halls.
Banuri emphasized the importance of maintaining strict vigilance in the execution of SOPs at a time when the virus was re-emerging. Appreciating the range of innovative actions, he advised VCs to keep in touch with one another and share their best practices. He stressed the need for ensuring a quick response in case of the infections.
“The key strategy, i.e., the implementation of SOPs in letter and spirit, is most essential”, he underlined. He also urged the Vice-Chancellors to work on contact tracing in case any case erupts on campus and adopt the smart lockdown strategy in affected classes or departments. “I am mindful of the fact that closures any longer will put extra burden on the students already grappling with the consequences of the lockdown earlier in the year”.
Highlighting the importance of digitization of various university processes, he said that the universities must continue to build capacity to cope with future outbreaks. He stressed the need for providing COVID-related information as well as counseling to the students. “We have to make the students our partners in this struggle,” he said, adding that the HEC will continue to coordinate with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and the Ministry of Information Technology (MoIT) to improve internet connectivity for faculty and students.
The university heads expressed satisfaction with the cooperation and support provided by the district administration and health authorities. They shared the results of random tests conducted on their campuses.
The Vice-Chancellors reiterated their resolve to abide by the government and HEC guidelines to prevent COVID-19 resurgence.