Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, all educational institutions have been struggling to deal with this crisis. After a year and half, the question still stands; how will we handle the COVID-19 crisis?
Some institutions still depend on e-learning; others take the risk to bring back offline education, but with taking all the precautionary measures needed to ensure the safety of their students. Among these institutions was The American University in Cairo (AUC) that resumed face-to-face education on 5 September.
According to AUC Coronavirus community dashboard, the spread rate of the virus is slow.There arecurrently74 positive cases out of 10,000 individuals in AUC community, which includes students, faculty and staff.
Daily News Egypt interviewed Ehab Abdel Rahman, Provost and Acting President of AUC, to know more about the AUC experience in resuming offline education and the procedures taken to ensure the safety of everyone on the campus, even if positive covid-19 found. The interview also touched on the COVID-19 impact on education, and the future of higher education in general. Abdel Rahman also spoke about AUC’s research priorities in the coming period, and its social responsibility role.
How did the AUC prepare for the return of offline education within the university? What are the precautionary measures that the AUC have taken in order to ensure the safety of students and academic staff against COVID-19?
Let me say that, actually, the university decided to go back to face-to-face teaching a long time ago. In May of 2021, we started to prepare to bring everyone back to campus.
So what did we do? One, we focused on getting, hopefully, all of our people vaccinated. We worked closelywith the Government of Egypt and the Ministry of Health to avail the vaccine for AUC community– that means to AUC faculty, students and staff. We continued to work closely with the government until we reached today more than 90% of our community is vaccinated.
Two, we added two more days to our teaching schedule which are Saturday and Tuesday, to ensure that we spread all of our students six days a week instead of four days a week to enhance social distancing on campus.
On top of the vaccination, we require wearing masks and social distancing everywhere on campus, indoor and outdoor.
So those are the precautionary measures that we have taken to ensure the safety and health of everyone on campus. Behind all those arrangements, there was a huge team of AUC faculty and staff who have been working tirelessly to bring us back to campus, and I would like to thank them all for their hard work.
You mentioned that 90% of the AUC community got vaccinated. How would you deal with those who have not been vaccinated until now, for personal reasons like being pregnant?
Of course we allow them to come to campus, but to ensure the safety and health of everyone, we’re asking them to get the weekly antigen test. We ask anyone who is not vaccinated, regardless of the reason, to get a weekly antigen test. We have tensites on campus where unvaccinated people are required to go and get the weekly tests. Not only that, but we also managed to get a good deal with the private company running the tests to give a subsidised rate for our community who are not vaccinated regardless of the reason.
If AUC found COVID-19 cases in the campus, would the University close in case of high infection rates?
Of course, we are monitoring the situation all the time; we’re ready for any scenario.
For now, we are ready to continue face-to-face education, as long as the number of cases is low. But if it increases, then we may allow only some of our students on campus while the rest will go back online. If the health situation in the country at large gets worse, then we are ready to fully go back to online. So we have different scenarios in place, we’re ready to roll them out if needed.
How does AUC deal with COVID-19 cases found?
Vaccination does not prevent people from getting COVID-19, but it reduces the chances of contracting the virus. So when we found positive cases on campus, first we identified the case, and identified all contact cases, meaning the people that get in contact with that case. Second, we asked the case to stay home until they are feeling better and have negative PCR.
So after that, they can come back to campus. In addition, we ask all the contact cases to get tested and come back to campus after they show a negative test for COVID-19. The classroom or the office that has had that positive case, we close it for 24 hours, and we disinfected the classroom or the office during that time.
How was the first week of offline education?
We realised that people were concerned about coming back to campus after almost a year and a half being online. We understand their concern. That’s why we work hard to ensure the safety of everyone. During the first week, I think the message that I got from everyone I met was that they are very excited about being back on campus. And there is a mode of happiness of being back on campus. However, we still want everyone to be responsible and to wear masks and to ensure social distance in order to continue to be on campus. We are, as I said, ready to take a decision needed to ensure the health and safety of our people and at the same time to ensure that we’re delivering our courses with the highest quality possible.
How do you evaluate the attendance rate in the university during the first week?
My own observation is that it is more than the usual. And my explanation for that is that everyone, regardless if he/she wants to be on campus or not, if he/she has classes or not, wants to come and see the campus as they miss it.
How many research papers does the AUC publish annually?
We pay attention to research. We encourage our university to do high- quality research, not just research, but the research that has an impact on the field and society. AUC in 2021, for example, published almost 375 peer- reviewed articles, of which nearly200 were published in top-ranked journals. And that’s to say that we have to focus more on the quality of the publication, more than anything else.We really encourage our faculty to publish more in highly impact journals to impact the field and society.
Are there any research topics that are a priority for the coming period?
I think the areas that we need to focus on in the future that will have a great interest for Egypt are anything related to food, energy, and water.
Those are significant research areas that will impact everyone in Egypt. By the way, research does not mean only sciences and engineering. It is also related to economics, social sciences, and management. All fields can contribute to those three areas of importance to society now: energy, water, and food.
In terms of the future, what are your plans during this New Year, and what is the five- year strategy for the AUC?
So let me say that next month we will be welcoming our new president, Dr. Ahmad Dallal, to the university. When he arrives, we will start our planning for the new strategic plan. So with Dr. Ahmad Dallal’s vision, we’re looking for a strategic plan that will lead the university to the future. And I truly believe that AUC should continue to be leading the higher education system in the region and Egypt.
How do you evaluate higher education globally in general and in Egypt in specific?
Any higher education should continue to improve itself;there is no end line for higher quality education and higher quality research. Knowing that there is no end line for better quality means that we need to continue improving ourselves in all aspects; teaching, research, and even operation. And I’m really glad aboutall the international universities coming to the higher education scene in Egypt because that means more opportunities for students, more competition, and competition is good. It forces you to enhance yourself. So I’m very optimistic about those universities coming to Egypt. All institutions in Egypt will accelerate their pace to develop themselves.
Some people say that COVID-19 accelerated the digital transformation and self- learning, and had a positive impact on education, while others disagree. How do you see the COVID-19 impact on education?
I think COVID-19 opened our eyes to lots of opportunities in higher education, including online education. And no one model fits all. We have to tailor what we have learned during this year and a half in online education to our needs. So I doubt that online classes would be the only educational system at all higher education institutions in the future. However, I believe it will be adopted in some university programmes.
How would online classes change the future of higher education?
I believe each institution has to answer that to itself. We’re not all the same. Each university has its own philosophy and vision. Based on each university’s philosophy and vision of education, they have to draft their own teaching and education philosophy for the future. Concerning AUC’s philosophy, AUC has been and will continue to be adopting liberal arts education and it also has been and will continue to improve itself all the time.
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, we formed a committee to look into the future of education at AUC post COVID-19. This committee beganits work more than a year ago, and its members submitted their recommendations to the President and me. But what I can say is that hybrid teaching will be the future at AUC. How so and which programmes needsfurtherdiscussion.
AUC is also known for its social responsibility role, what do you think is the AUC’s most important community responsibility activity?
We are very proud that AUC is a non-profit organization, and this is a very important point. AUC does not charge its students the full cost.Actually, every student in AUC pays a part of the actual cost to come to AUC because we believe that we should provide an opportunity for people who are keen on having high quality education to come to AUC and will continue to attract them.
In order to ensure high quality education, we cannot open the university to everyone who wants to get a high quality education, so we select the best and we offer them the best education we can offer.
I am very proud of our social responsibility roles, as we provide high-quality education for people who cannot afford to enrol in AUC.
Also, I am very proud of us going out and helping other sister universities to develop themselves and we have so many examples of doing so. The recent one that comes to mind now is the University Career Centre project where we help our sister universities in Egypt to develop their own career centres.
AUC Career Centre has been there for more than 30 years, helping our students to get jobs once they graduate. And we are actually transferring that knowledge to other sister universities in Egypt.
My own observation is that attendance rate within AUC during first week was more than usual
I think COVID-19 opened our eyes to lots of opportunities in higher education, including online education
AUC faculty in 2021 for example published almost 375, peer reviewed articles. Almost 200 of them were published in the top ranked Journals
Anyone who is not vaccinated, regardless of his/her reason, we ask them to get weekly tests