In the wake of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), higher education institutions (HEIs) face many new challenges. In a small span of time they have become not just sites of learning and intellectual growth but also potential incubators of the new infectious disease. Campuses can no longer offer hospitality to those who desire self-improvement but must reject entry to those that unfortunately pose public health risks. COVID-19 threatens public health, but more than that, it threatens our use of public spaces, spaces such as classrooms and libraries where people can come together to share ideas, debate and make new discoveries. New restrictions on physical distance, especially for indoor spaces, have presented unprecedented challenges to teaching and learning. Strict lockdowns at several cities and countries worldwide are putting a heavy strain on social relationships, mental health and the global economy.
Virtual interaction via the internet, while unable to replace the experience of physical presence, can offer solutions to certain problems that we are now facing: how to maintain consistent and quality contact and communication with our loved ones without being able to physically meet them? How to ensure teaching and learning continue to take place when the traditional method of delivering courses face-to-face is unavailable? How to deliver courses to students unable to reach campus due to travel restrictions and closed borders? These are pressing questions.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Education and HEIs, working closely with the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) and Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CDC), started developing countermeasures and policies for COVID-19 since January, finalizing them before the spring semester started on February 25 and updating them as required. In this issue of the Responding to COVID-19 series, the Foundation for International Cooperation in Higher Education of Taiwan (FICHET) gives a brief overview of the Ministry of Education’s response to disruptions to course delivery caused by COVID-19. The article details government-led actions, such as policies on class suspension, recommended precautions, special funding and online resources for distance learning.
Policy on Class Suspension
On February 20 before the start of the spring semester, the Ministry of Education’s Department of Overall Planning announced the criteria for suspending classes when there is an outbreak of COVID-19 on campus, which applies to all schools and HEIs. The criteria and other disease prevention measures all follow recommendations by health experts and the Central Epidemic Command Center, which coordinates all operations related to COVID-19 in Taiwan.
When there is report of a suspected case of COVID-19 among its staff or students, the institution will notify the relevant health authorities and have the person tested at one of the 161 designated testing facilities in Taiwan. While waiting for the test result, the institution will start investigating the person’s contact history for the past fourteen days. If the test result is positive, all face-to-face classes taught or attended by that person must be immediately suspended for two weeks and delivered online. Those with contact history must self-quarantine, monitor their own health and report to relevant authorities if and when symptoms develop.
If two or more people is tested positive at the same institution, all face-to-face classes at that institution or particular campus must be suspended for two weeks and delivered online. If more than a third of educational institutions in one township are forced to suspend all face-to-face classes due to COVID-19, then all educational institutions in that township must suspend all classes for two weeks and deliver them online. While fourteen days is a rule of thumb, schools and HEIs should follow CDC recommendations and resume face-to-face classes only when it is safe to do so.
COVID-19 Response Teams
Around the same time, on February 20 and 21, the Ministry of Education held briefings for all HEIs on disease prevention measures at four separate locations in northern, central and southern Taiwan. Ten universities presented and shared their strategies to combat COVID-19: Fu Jen Catholic University, Taipei Medical University, National Yang-Ming University, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology, Chang Gung University, Asia University, China Medical University, National Cheng Kung University, Kaohsiung Medical University, and Chung Hwa University of Medical Technology (presentation slides can be found here and here).
The Ministry of Education specified that every institution needs to create a response team for COVID-19, with the principal as commander, and have separate units for tracing contact history, cleaning and disinfecting campus(es), managing medical supplies, administration and reporting to relevant government agencies. HEIs also need to ensure they can provide appropriate housing and food for students who need to self-quarantine due to travel or contact history, regardless of their nationalities.
The Ministry asked each institution to develop their own contingency plans for alternative course delivery, such as via distance learning or rescheduling classes over the summer. These plans need to ensure students, staff and the institution have access to the necessary equipment and hardware, such as appropriate internet bandwidth, headphones and microphones, reliable software for streaming, online discussions and replaying prerecorded lectures.
The Ministry encouraged a flexible approach to managing the disruptions to course delivery, especially for students personally affected by the disease, and recommended delivering courses via a combination of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. HEIs should also review their policies on leave of absences, resits, alternative assessment methods and the required credits to complete a degree. The Ministry also conducted on-site visits at the end of February to ensure all HEIs have completed the necessary tasks before the spring term started.
Policy Update: Contingency Plans
On March 31, following a rise of imported COVID-19 cases reported in Taiwan, the Ministry of Education’s Department of Higher Education released an updated guideline on COVID-19 countermeasures which addressed more specifically the disruptions to course delivery and necessary precautions. It presented three scenarios according to the level of risk to public health: 1) when no COVID-19 cases are reported on campus, 2) when the number of reported cases meet the criteria to suspend all face-to-face classes and 3) when the Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) orders all classes to be suspended nationwide.
1) In the first scenario where no COVID-19 cases are reported, HEIs need to coordinate and test-run alternative course delivery at a small scale for no longer than three days. Options include requiring everyone to wear a face mask in class, separate large-sized classes into smaller groups, synchronous online teaching or a combination of synchronous and asynchronous teaching. How and when to conduct these drills is at the discretion of each institution; but if the test-run exceeds three days and is conducted at a much larger scale, HEIs need to notify the Ministry of Education beforehand, ensure all students still receive high-quality education and report results afterwards.
2) If there are two or more reported cases amongst its members, which meet the criteria to suspend all face-to-face classes, the institution needs to report to the Ministry of Education and provide clear instruction and information to all members on self-health management, policies for alternative course delivery and assessment, and continue to monitor members’ health and contact history. Once again, the Ministry encouraged flexibility in terms of course delivery given the exceptional circumstance. However, every credit should still require eighteen hours of contact time. For courses that cannot be delivered online, such as those involving laboratory or field work, these should be rescheduled to take place once classes are resumed or over the summer. While face-to-face classes are suspended, the institution still needs to maintain a minimum number of staff on campus to administer online courses; students should pursue their studies at home and avoid public spaces, including campus. The institution must disinfect the whole campus and continue the four main areas of defense against COVID-19: monitoring, disinfecting, ventilation and prompt action/reaction.
3) Lastly, in the worst-case scenario where Taiwan’s COVID-19 infection risk has reached the highest level and CECC determines all face-to-face classes need to be suspended nationwide, the Ministry of Education will provide further information and countermeasures for the emergency. HEIs must strictly adhere to the dates for suspending and resuming classes released by CECC, keep communication channels open and be ready to respond to any new developments.
Considering the additional costs that disease prevention and providing alternative course delivery will incur, the Ministry of Education’s Department of Higher Education announced on March 25 that it has allocated a NT$400 million special funding for HEIs to combat COVID-19 and minimize its impact on teaching and learning. Further details were released on April 2, in which the Ministry announced that it will also reduce the interest rate for student loans and postpone payment of principal. This is in step with Taiwan government’s effort to protect and aid its people during this time of crisis.
On April 2, Taiwan’s Executive Yuan announced a proposal to increase the COVID-19 relief budget from the original NT$60 billion (US$1.97 billion) to NT$1.05 trillion (US$34.6 billion). The budget will be spent on epidemic control, industry relief and economic stimulus. Specific measures include postponing tax and mortgages payments or paying them in installments; cash assistance to low- and middle-income households and vulnerable minorities, taxi drivers, plumbers, construction workers, corporate workers in tourism and service industries, and others deeply affected by the epidemic. More details can be found at the Executive Yuan’s online newsroom, https://english.ey.gov.tw/Page/5A898E83D438145A.
HEIs can use the special funding from the Ministry of Education to purchase additional disease prevention equipment and for producing digital and online course materials, such as hiring part- or full-time digital teaching assistants or upgrading recording facilities and software. The amount of funding will correspond to the size of the institution, ranging from NT$500 thousand (US$16 thousand) to NT$3 million (US$100 thousand).
Online Resources for Distance Learning
Distance learning is especially crucial for international students unable to travel to Taiwan due to COVID-19 and local students who are required to self-quarantine. Given the global pandemic, it is still uncertain when face-to-face course delivery will be the norm again. Nevertheless, distance and online learning is already part of the norm and its influence in the education sector will continue to grow.
HEIs provide resources and training support to their own staff and students, but Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has also produced online materials to support the transition to distance learning. A new website (https://learning.cloud.edu.tw/onlinelearning/) launched recently by the Ministry offers a one-stop platform that collects all information related to distance learning for students, parents and teachers nationwide. It provides instructions on using different software for synchronous and asynchronous learning, such as Microsoft Team, Google Classroom and Cisco WebEX; information on government policy regarding course delivery; and internet broadband discounts for students from low-income households and students whose face-to-face classes are suspended due to the coronavirus. It also introduces several open source platforms for online courses, such as TaiwanMOOC, OpenEdu and TaiwanLIFE.
There is another website (https://sites.google.com/view/univ-elearning/%E9%A6%96%E9%A0%81) managed by the Ministry of Education and tailored for HEIs. Its contents are organized according to the different roles involved in distance learning: administrators, teachers and students. Besides a brief introduction to the concept and modes of distance learning, the website also explains the definition of distance learning courses according to Taiwan laws and regulations, policies on creating online courses and how to have them certified by the Ministry of Education. There is also a lively Facebook page operated by the Ministry of Education (https://www.facebook.com/www.edu.tw/), which provides the latest information and updates to a wide audience.
There are still many unknown variables in the near future how COVID-19 will impact course delivery in higher education. What is certain is that Taiwan’s government agencies and higher education institutions will continue working closely together to protect the health and welfare of its students, staff and the learning community.