Universities are beginning to reopen in fits and starts across Asia, some with staggered classes and phased cohorts, but much is still uncertain, including when normal classes will resume for all students amid fears of resurgence.
All countries in Asia have reported COVID-19 cases apart from North Korea, accounting for 1.4 million of the world’s 7.3 million cases of COVID-19, and 36,069 deaths out of a total of 411,000 deaths worldwide – contained in part by swift government action in many countries.
As the earliest region to be hit, disruption has been stark. In most countries in the region early university shutdowns have meant the loss of at least a semester of face-to-face teaching, sometimes without clear plans as to how this will be made up for during this year.
Universities planning to reopen in June or July, including in China and Malaysia, are allowing only graduating classes and some other groups that require access to campus facilities like laboratories.
Some higher education ministries in countries such as Indonesia have admitted that face-to-face classes may not be possible before the end of this year. Others, like India, are struggling to get face-to-face classes going before August or September.
And few really know at this stage how incoming students will be accommodated, given ongoing rules on distancing and quarantine in many countries.
Some countries that are planning to reopen universities still have travel restrictions from many countries, with continued uncertainty over when foreign students can return.
China and Hong Kong saw the earliest lockdowns in early February – as their universities did not reopen after the Lunar New Year holidays in late January. South Korean universities also did not reopen after vacations.
But during February and March universities in Japan, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam, which were the first outside China to see new cases, and then Southeast Asia and South Asia, followed in quick succession with campus closures.
Often two- to three-week closures were announced, which later had to be extended several times, as was the case in Singapore and Hong Kong, as students rushed back from overseas in advance of travel bans, creating new spikes in COVID-19 cases.
Hong Kong, for example, was about to announce the reopening of limited face-to-face teaching from 6 April at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, which had been shut since a violent police siege in November 2019, but then had to remain closed.
Below we report on developments in China, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, North Korea, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan.
Chinese school and university closures were initially to last until 24 February, postponing the semester start by a week. Schools, but not universities, had begun to reopen in some lesser hit provinces in late April, but China has only now begun to reopen universities in its hardest hit areas of Hubei province, where the virus originated in the provincial capital of Wuhan, and in Beijing, also badly affected.
Universities began to reopen from 8 June in Beijing and Hubei Province for a limited number of students – mainly final-year graduate and undergraduate students, a week or so after schools began to reopen.
The education ministry in Beijing has said local authorities around the country should use their own judgment about when to open schools and locally controlled universities can open, but universities should not reopen before schools.
Beijing Municipal Education Commission spokesman Li Yi said it was far more complicated for colleges and universities to resume classes than primary or secondary schools, because university students attend classes, do experiments and live and eat together.
"Universities need to strengthen epidemic prevention and control measures and implement those measures to make sure students are healthy and safe," Li was quoted by the official Xinhua News Agency as saying.
According to official media, nearly 100 colleges and universities in Beijing have carried out epidemic prevention drills in recent days under the supervision of municipal educational departments. Only those that meet the standards are allowed to have their students back and resume classes.
Peking University said around 7,000 final-year students would return to campus “on a voluntary basis” in four batches this month, with staff having started “back-to-campus” work since May.
"The university has adopted very detailed and considerate epidemic prevention and control measures. We also received an 'anti-epidemic package' from the university, which contains medical masks, disinfectants and food. I feel safe and reassured," said Geng Baoqun, a PhD student at Beijing Institute of Technology, coming from North China's Shanxi Province.
Students returning to Beijing University of Chemical Technology had to show their health QR code, nucleic acid test reports and had their body temperatures taken, under the guidance of university staff. Face recognition facilities and temperature checking points have also been set up at the entrances of student dormitories, according to Chinese official media.
"Our university canteens adopt a meal reservation system, which requires students to book their meals in advance in a bid to avoid gathering. Meanwhile, dining-tables have been marked so that students can keep a safe distance from each other," said Xiao Li, director of the dining centre at China Agricultural University in Beijing, which has plans to bring back some 5,000 final-year students between 8 and 26 June.
Other postgraduate and undergraduate students would return “in the following months”, he was quoted by official media as saying.
Taiwan delayed the start of the university semester to early March, with some university campuses closed through March, though it was far from a full lockdown – local students attended but no visitors to campuses were allowed.
With just seven deaths from coronavirus and around 430 cases, most of them occurring in mid to late March, and a second spike in the week of 19 April, Taiwan is considered to have had among the most successful policies to control the spread of the virus. Graduation ceremonies have gone ahead on campuses in recent days with students wearing masks and able to meet in small groups.
After almost two months of zero local infections, universities have been pressing the government to allow foreign students to return. But this has been met with uncertainty and caution.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Education said at the end of May that it would allow in foreign students from countries less affected by the virus in July, pending the easing of border control measures by Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center.
With local students on summer vacation in July, this would enable social distancing and the use of extra dormitory space to be set aside for 14 days of quarantine for overseas arrivals. However, a 3 June cabinet meeting shelved the plan, concerned about the import of cases.
Japan closed schools and universities in reaction to the COVID-19 crisis later than other countries in North East Asia. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered them closed from 27 February until early April when school holidays end. However, in many areas, students and their families asked for longer closures for fear of infection, and some schools that had reopened closed again. The academic year, which normally starts in April for universities, was postponed.
Schools began to reopen after 18 May, with staggered attendance after the emergency was lifted in all but eight of the country’s prefectures in mid-May, but after some confusion the emergency was extended to 31 May.
Japanese Education Minister Koichi Hagiuda said on 29 May that the government was considering a review of next year’s university entrance examinations, following the prolonged school closures. He said the National Association of Upper Secondary School Principals would conduct a survey on moving back the examination dates, narrowing down the topics covered in the tests and using make-up exams, Japan’s Jiji Press reported.
New guidelines for the exams would be announced in June based on the survey results and discussions with school and university representatives, Haguida said.
“Personally, I would like to give students more than enough time to prepare,” he added.
Although universities are beginning the academic year, classes continue to be held online only, with many universities saying this will last the entire semester, with face-to-face classes unlikely before September.
Following months of closure, South Korea began to resume in-person classes in May as new coronavirus cases in the country appeared to be slowing, starting with high school seniors preparing for university entrance exams, and other grades allowed in under a staggered plan, but then had to close them again at the end of May as cases resurged.
Private cram schools have been a hotspot, attracting students from different neighbourhoods and different schools, gathered in the same place. According to the education ministry, 78 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed at 42 private institutes since February.
When COVID-19 cases emerged last month at cram schools, “we realised the COVID-19 pandemic has not ended yet, and we're still in danger of outbreaks. Thus, we strongly urge students and parents not to use multi-use facilities including cram schools, in order to reopen schools physically as soon as possible," South Korean Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae said in mid-May.
Universities had been scheduled to start face-to-face classes in late May for some students but some three-quarters of public and private institutions said they will extend distance learning, possibly until the end of the semester in late June, according to a May survey by the Korean Association of Private University Presidents.
For the majority of students, onsite classes are unlikely to begin until September, the start of the academic year.
Korea University and several other universities in Seoul began onsite classes on 11 May for students requiring practical training and laboratory work, alongside online classes to allow for smaller classes with fewer than 30 students properly distanced. But many students stayed away and the universities have mostly reversed the decision.
Kookmin University in Seoul was among those suspending face-to-face classes within days.
“We pushed ahead for the onsite classes that require experiments and practical evaluation, but the decision to change the plan was inevitable due to the current situation in which the virus is apparently spreading again,” a Kookmin official said on 12 May.
Although North Korea has not reported any cases of the coronavirus after closing its border with China in late January, North Korean schools usually begin the spring term on 1 April, but this was postponed.
State media has said high schools and universities started classes on 20 April.
Last month Singapore announced its eight week ‘circuit-breaker’ lockdown would end this month in several phases, with returning to school made compulsory from 2 June. Schools must have adequate distancing in place, and staggered arrival, dismissal and recess timings.
However, with most publicly funded universities starting their normal summer vacation this month, under the ministry’s guidelines they will resume term in August or September.
Students from the Singapore Institute of Technology and Singapore University of Technology and Design will be allowed to return this month, primarily for practical and laboratory sessions with other lessons continuing online.
Even when universities return in August many classes will still be online. The National University of Singapore (NUS) has outlined a ‘zoning’ policy on campus for its 10 August start to “minimise intermingling” between the five zones. Students and faculty will have to keep within their designated zones for all activities, including attending classes and eating at canteens, NUS said.
No more than 50% of the students are expected to be on campus on any one day, NUS President Tan Eng Chye said in the Straits Times newspaper.
"We see great value in giving our students a vibrant campus experience, and we are doing everything we can to ensure that this is done in a safe and careful way. Measures such as safe distancing, temperature declaration, contact tracing and more will be put in place as we take a phased approach to progressively resuming campus operations."
Students have said the zoning plan is confusing and “too restrictive”.
Universities across Malaysia closed on 18 March, with researchers rushing to safely close down laboratory experiments after the announcement was made by Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on 16 March – although some special individual access to laboratories has been allowed under restricted conditions.
The government's internal ‘movement control order’ stranded some 100,000 students at university campuses outside their home towns, with government and university efforts to get them home safely lasting until late May.
The government announced on 27 May that all colleges and universities are to conduct teaching and learning activities online until the end of the academic year, with the exception of masters and PhD students who require access to specialised equipment in laboratories, workshops and design studios.
Final-year students “without a conducive environment or access to equipment for online classes” would be allowed back as early as 1 July.
The new intake of students will be allowed on campuses in stages, with polytechnic diploma and certificate, community college and private learning institution students allowed in as early as 1 July. But campus access for degree and postgraduate research students in public and private universities will only be allowed from 1 October.
Indonesia imposed restrictions including campus closures from early March, and has been moving to remove large scale social restrictions this month in cities like Jakarta, with no certainty as to when universities can reopen.
Coordinating Minister for Human Development and Cultural Affairs Muhadjir Effendy said the government will not rush to a decision to allow students to return to campuses. Although the new academic year begins mid-July, there is even the possibility, he said, that schools and universities will open in December or early next year, with the entire first semester of the new academic year conducted via remote learning.
Thailand registered the first confirmed cases outside China in mid-January – mostly visitors from China. Thailand has had 3,125 confirmed cases and 58 deaths to date, with most new cases occurring in March.
It closed all of its schools and universities from 18 March but Chulalongkorn University and Mahidol University in Bangkok, each with a confirmed case of COVID-19 on campus, suspended classes some days before that.
Students remained at home under lockdown by an emergency decree that was extended to the end of May. The new semester normally begins mid-May, but school and university closures have been extended to 1 July.
Vietnam was one of the first countries outside China to see COVID-19 cases, which were first registered on 23 January – the same day the Wuhan lockdown was declared in China. But with swift contact tracing measures, it kept infection rates low with 332 COVID-19 cases to date and no deaths. Schools and universities stayed closed after the Lunar New Year holiday, with closures repeatedly extended, but apart from ‘enhanced social distancing’ during most of April, Vietnam avoided a complete lockdown.
After a three-month break, and no domestic coronavirus cases for two weeks, most schools reopened from 4 May, in two phases a week apart with limited numbers in each classroom and students attending either morning or afternoon sessions. Universities began to reopen at the same time.
Rick Bennett, executive dean of RMIT University, with three campuses in Vietnam, said staff were gradually returning from late May to prepare the campuses for all students to be back for the new semester from 29 June, preceded by an orientation week on campuses for new students from 22 June. All classes will be face to face, although some 30 supplementary online classes are being offered.
Foreign students will be allowed to return to campuses but with a 28-day quarantine period, and subject to agreements with individual countries. Students unable to return to Vietnam will have to continue their studies online, Bennett said in a video message to students. “It is not possible to begin your studies online and then switch to face-to-face,” he said.
Colleges and universities across India are expected to open after 15 August, according to Human Resource Development Minister Ramesh Nishank Pokhriyal.
All educational institutions have been shut since mid-March; many of them from 25 March when the government announced a countrywide classroom shutdown as part of a slew of measures to contain the COVID-19 spread.
Last week Pokhriyal said: “The pending results, assessments, marking and evaluations of all colleges in the country would be taken care of.”
Earlier, higher education regulator the University Grants Commission (UGC) had also said that college sessions would begin in August for current students and in September for new ones. The Human Resource Development Ministry says it aims to “catch up on the lost time” of the past three months as universities and colleges were closed.
“The UGC is working out modalities for reopening of higher educational institutes for the upcoming session,” Pokhriyal said.
There was confusion among students last month when a section of the media reported that colleges may reopen by July in a zone-wise manner, starting from Green and Orange districts (having fewer active COVID-19 cases) across the nation. Later, the Home Ministry clarified that no decision had been taken yet on reopening education institutions.
“If the COVID-19 situation remains grim, then I don’t think colleges will open even in August,” a UGC official said. “I think a lot depends on how quickly the disease is curbed. Right now, we’re reporting almost 10,000 new cases daily and the situation is serious in the national capital Delhi and Maharashtra. Currently, there is uncertainty about the reopening of colleges.”
“The government’s announcement about the reopening of colleges appears conditional at present. The educational institutes can reopen if the virus is brought under control by that time,” a ministry official said.
India’s COVID-19 tally rose to 276,583 with 7,745 fatalities as of 10 June, according to Ministry of Health and Family Welfare data.
Many colleges have started with the online admission procedures for the next academic year after Pokhriyal announced colleges would open in August – three months later than normal.
Students across the country have demanded that their final year or final semester exams be cancelled due to pandemic risks, and they should be allowed to proceed to the next year of study.
“Students will have to sit in a classroom for the examinations,” said Sudhir Tandon, a final-year graduate student in Mumbai. “Both teachers and students will be putting their lives in danger. It is unsafe to ask students to appear in exams as it can put them at risk of catching infection.”
Pakistan closed all schools and universities on 13 March, when the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the country. The border with Iran – with a particularly high COVID-19 rate – was sealed, as was the border with Afghanistan, from 16 March.
The announcement came a day after the provincial government of Sindh province, one of the worst hit by the outbreak, announced that all schools and universities were remaining closed until 31 May.
Although the Pakistan government lifted many restrictions last month, particularly for business and industry, educational institutions remain closed with a mid-July resumption looking increasingly doubtful. Education analyst and senior journalist Arshad Yousafzai, told University World News: “There seems absolutely no possibility for the reopening of universities at least by August.”
He added that the tussle between the central government in Islamabad led by one party, and regional governments in provinces led by different parties, together with lack of planning and technical glitches, mean sudden ad hoc policies and plans were imposed on students.
Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission (HEC), the regulatory body, made it clear in a statement on 4 June that promoting university students without end of year examination remained “out of the question”. It had earlier issued guidelines for all universities to gradually switch to online studies, but many parts of this country face issues with electricity and internet access.
The HEC has said in a statement that efforts are afoot to address some of the internet connectivity issues, fee issues, new admissions, thesis research and use of laboratories, without providing details.
Sri Lanka’s universities were to reopen in three stages starting from 4 May, but that date has now been postponed. The country’s University Grants Commission (UGC) decided to reopen only medical faculties of all state universities for final-year students from 15 June, with strict health guidelines in place, following a discussion between the UGC and the director general of health services.
UGC Chairman Sampath Amaratunge said the decision was taken to conduct examinations for final-year medical students. Depending on the success of the limited reopening, other faculties could reopen in stages, with final-year students returning first.
Final-year medical students are to be provided with hostel facilities, one student per room and they will undergo a quarantine period of two weeks as well, he said.
Officials say that a decision on the reopening of universities under several phases will be taken from 15 June.
“Reopening universities for undergraduates will take time as there is a curfew and people would not be allowed to travel between districts. Even with the curfew being in effect, medical and science faculties of several universities are tasked with conducting real-time polymerase chain reactions or PCR tests [for detecting the coronavirus] these days,” Amaratunge said.
“The staff affiliated with these faculties’ research and laboratory facilities are already following strict health and safety guidelines whilst conducting their test work.”
With the threat of COVID-19 still high in Afghanistan, the government said this week schools and universities would remain closed until September. Schools which normally reopen on 21 March have been closed after the government initially said they would close for a month until 18 April. A period of uncertainty followed as the number of coronavirus cases rose.
The country’s initial lockdown was in February when COVID-19 first surfaced in Western Herat province bordering Iran. All public and private sector universities and schools have been closed with no clear plans to reopen. This week the Afghan government finally urged all high-school graduates to get ready for university entrance exams, which had been postponed.
The National Examination Authority (NExA), through a social media post on 4 June, gave the students and distribution centres 10 days to submit admission forms and clear their dues.
Aziz Ahmad Oriakhil, spokesman for the Ministry of Higher Education, told University World News that intensive efforts are underway, despite so many limitations, to overcome the crisis through distance and online learning.
“After the frontline health workers and security forces battling the spread of coronavirus in Afghanistan, the other worst-hit sector is the education sector,” he said, adding that there is no tentative date in mind for the reopening of the universities and colleges.
“We have grim issues of poverty, access to internet and even electricity in many parts, including the capital Kabul,” he stressed, while asserting that the COVID-19 crisis has been taken as a challenge by the higher education ministry to put in place a mechanism for any such future crises.
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