As the COVID-19 virus spreads throughout the region triggering panic and fear, the University of the West Indies (UWI) moved to assure students and staff members that they will be protected and classes will continue.
But Vice Chancellor Professor Sir Hilary Beckles said he expected the measures to be taken will cost the university dearly.
He was responding to questions from the media on Friday during the school’s Campus Council conference at the Cave Hill Campus
Sir Hilary said: “It undoubtedly will have a significant impact in the short-term especially for our Masters students who are engaged in the payment of fees on the semester by semester basis.
“Outside of that, the students who are being funded by the governments, will not be impacted in the short-term, but it could have implications going forward.
In addition to its main campuses at Mona in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago’s St Augustine and here at Cave Hill, the UWI also has a campus in Antigua and Barbuda and a faculty in the Bahamas, apart from its satellite Open campuses spread throughout the region.
So far, the virus has been confirmed in Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and Antigua and Barbuda.
The university was forced to suspend classes for one month at Mona.
Sir Hilary stressed that Mona was not closed but that classes were only suspended. He gave an assurance that the UWI was also a critical part of the search for a solution to the virus crisis since it was carrying out some of the tests at Mona.
He said at the end of the month’s suspension then a decision would be taken on whether “we will continue the resumption of classes on an online format”.
At the same time, he explained that officials were using the opportunity now to extensively train and retool academic tutors in the delivery of online tutoring and teaching skills.
Sir Hilary was unable to give an estimate of how much this was expected to cost the UWI, but said: “We are going to be investing resources in online training, online technology, so we will have to find some resources to create the ideal circumstance for ensuring that our faculty members are now dual mode teachers.
“So, yes, it will carry some cost as we adjust to the new environment.
“In the case of Trinidad, our colleagues are there at the moment working through the details because of the situation in Port-of-Spain, where the campus is actually meeting with the ministries of health and education so that a recommendation can go forward in terms of how do we handle that situation.
“In the case of Barbados, we have not had a confirmation [of any COVID-19 case] and there is no reason for us to act alone.”
Sir Hilary said the strategy for the university was the same for all its locations and it was carried out “on a stakeholder basis”.
“When, God forbid, that time comes it would not be a Cave Hill decision. It would be a Cave Hill decision working in conjunction with the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Education, and we would look at all the options, look at all the possibilities and do what is right for the country,” he said.
He said in the case of the university’s Five Islands Campus in Antigua, the principal was in conversation with the government, campus officials and students in relation to updates and protocols.
Sir Hilary told reporters: “It is important for us to be proactive and we are being as proactive as we possibly can. At the same time, we cannot appear to be jittery and panicky.
“So that we do not wish to make decisions that would compromise government strategy or the economic structure of the country.
“So we are moving hand-in-glove with all of our stakeholders that we make these decisions collectively.
“No doubt we will be making that decision in short time in relation to Five Islands, when we have extracted from the government their own thinking, the staff and students.”
At the Cave Hill campus, its principal, Professor The Most Honourable Eudine Barriteau, insisted that Barbados was at “code zero” and therefore there was no disruption to classes.
But should there be a confirmed case that affected the campus, it would do what was necessary to protect its students, faculty and the country, she said.
She reinforced that Cave Hill and other campuses were already utilizing online tools for teaching and therefore those skills would also be leveraged, but warned the university is entering a new, “uncharted” phase.
Professor Barriteau said: “We are asking the public and our students to be aware we are in uncharted waters.
“The COVID-19 is posing serious financial and economic strain to Caribbean economies and societies as much as they are internationally.
“The University of the West Indies is offering multiple platforms of assistance, working with the governments to combat this.”
During her report, Professor Barriteau reported that the university’s software engineering students in the UWI-CIIT programme in China, the country in which the COVID-19 outbreak began, were on an extended winter break at the time.
She said: “Many returned to the Caribbean by late January. The campus and the university have appointed supervisory teams which have been pro-active in managing the welfare of the students in the programme.
“There are five Cave Hill and 16 Mona students in Suzhou, China.
“They are all well and all the cohort two students have resumed classes online.
“We have arranged internships for all nine of the Cave Hill final year students who have completed those internships in China.”
The principal thanked the programme officials in China for “going beyond the call of duty in looking after the wellbeing of all UWI students at GIST, Suzhou”.
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