Coronavirus: Face-to-face classes cut as universities move to minimise risk to students and staff

A number of universities across the country have taken steps to minimise contact among students and staff, as COVID-19 continues to spread in the country.

The University of Auckland announced on Friday that the coming week (March 23-27) would be a "teaching free week". Students will not need to attend classes and any tests scheduled for the period will be postponed and replaced by off-campus exercises, the university said.

Massey University has also suspended face-to-face teaching where possible in a bid to minimise the number of students on campus.

Auckland University's vice-chancellor Professor Dawn Freshwater said the university was preparing to "be in full digital teaching and learning mode from the following week (March 30) onwards if required".

An extra week would be added to the end of semester one to make up for the week off, Prof Freshwater said. 

Although students were not required to attend campus, staff would have to show up in order to make preparations.

Prof Freshwater said the university was "well in its contingency planning" for the eventuality of e-learning. 

"There has been an outstanding response in recent weeks to support some 2000 students stranded in China by the travel ban. This has tested our capabilities in many different areas and significantly improved our readiness for a campus closure."

Massey University was also moving to temporarily stop face-to-face teaching where possible and to reduce class sizes where distance learning was not feasible, according to a letter to students.

"We are already well set up to deliver online learning, and we are now in the phase of planning for future scenarios where it may not be possible to teach face-to-face classes," the letter said, according to Stuff.

"The coming weeks will be a time for trialling these changes, and mid-semester break will provide an opportunity to make sure everything is in place."

For the time being the campus would remain open and services such as the library and student accomodation would continue to operate.

A spokesperson for AUT in Auckland said classes are continuing as normal for now.

"We are exploring a number of options for the best way to continue if this is no longer deemed appropriate by Government."

It was important to balance the health of students and staff with the need to continue to provide quality education, the spokesperson said.

"Online options alone will not be sufficient. AUT’s student population includes a significant number of students (one in five or up to 3,500 students) who may not have access to the internet or devices at home and access to space to study."

The university said it was also providing students and staff with advice about hygiene and requiring anyone feeling unwell to go home.

Coronavirus: Face-to-face classes cut as universities move to minimise risk to students and staff
Photo credit: Newshub.

As of Friday morning, there have been 28 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in New Zealand. So far, there has been no evidence of community transmission.

As the number of cases here rises, so too has speculation that schools and education facilities will be ordered to close to stem the virus' spread.

Governments in numerous countries around the world have already taken that measure, but the Ministry of Health says it is not necessary here yet.

Speaking on Thursday, the Ministry of Health's Director-General Dr Ashley Bloomfield said such a move would be considered if it was proven there was community transmission of the disease. 

Dr Bloomfield said that closing schools here may put pressure on grandparents to look after children, putting them at risk of catching the virus.

Earlier this week a high school in Dunedin was closed after a student tested positive for COVID-19. 

Almost 150 close contacts were subsequently put into self-isolation, though the Ministry of Health confirmed on Thursday that all tests had come back negative.

The school will reopen on Tuesday.