February 24, 2020

COVID-19 Education: Implications arising from Coronavirus

Background

Since its outbreak in December 2019, and at the time of writing, the novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) has infected more than 79,000 people and killed over 2,600 people, with the vast majority of deaths and infection taking place in mainland China. As we currently understand it, primary transmission has taken place by way of animal infection and direct unprotected contact with live animals through surfaces in contact with those animals, while secondary transmission has been in the form of person-to-person transmission with the exchange of respiratory droplets.

As the human toll of COVID-19 continues to rise, the international consequences of the outbreak are becoming increasingly serious. In the context of the education sector, the critical risks arising from COVID-19 can be categorised as the risk of primary and secondary transmission to staff (including professional and academic staff) and students (including international and domestic students).

On top of the existing border control measures undertaken by the Australian Government, Australian education institutions have further responded to the outbreak by advising students who have visited Wuhan, or other parts of mainland China in the last two weeks not to attend school, childcare, universities or TAFE. This has been on the basis of ensuring the health, safety and wellbeing of in-country staff and students. These risks arise, largely, in respect of inbound travel from those who have visited affected parts of mainland China and the control measures reciprocate that concern.

Conversely, the situation differs for countries which are closer in proximity to the source of COVID-19, such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Here, the response by governments has been to implement control measures with respect to inbound and outbound travel in an effort to mitigate further infection.

In addition to such inbound and outbound travel restrictions, Singapore had on 7 February 2020 raised its Disease Outbreak Response System Condition (DORSCON) (being a colour-coded system and framework which Singapore uses to describe the current disease situation together with a general guideline on accompanying measures) alert level from yellow to orange. The orange alert level indicates that COVID-19 is viewed as severe and spreads easily but has not spread widely in Singapore and is still being contained. Following the change in alert level, the Ministry of Education of Singapore had implemented precautionary measures for Singapore educational institutions to follow, such as:

  • the suspension of large group and communal activities such as assemblies, camps, fieldtrips and mass celebrations;
  • staggered break times in educational institutions;
  • after-school programmes having to continue in smaller groups; and
  • frequent health checks and temperature screening for all students, staff and visitors.

The increase of the DORSCON level to orange also resulted in the various measures being taken by a number of educational institutions in Singapore, such as, compulsory temperature screenings implemented by all educational institutions, many universities moving large lectures and mid-term assessments online.

Apart from the stricter precautions taken by countries who are in closer proximity to the source of COVID-19, such as Singapore, broadly summarised, the impact of COVID-19 on educational providers will affect the following key groups of staff and students:

  • Students who have visited mainland China in the last 14 days (including international students returning to the country of the educational institution they are currently attending to continue their education);
  • Students attending inbound and outbound mobility programmes such as semester long exchanges or short term study tours;
  • Inbound academics and professional staff who have visited affected areas within the last 14 days;
  • Outbound academics and professional staff with planned travel to mainland China (and other affected areas) for research or partnership initiatives; and
  • Domestic and international students already in the country of the educational institution they are currently attending.

Impact

The outbreak of COVID-19 and the subsequent travel restrictions have prevented inbound students and staff from attending class and work while outbound students and staff are unable to participate in mobility and research programs. Educational service providers are also obliged, under statute, to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19. This may involve, inter alia, undertaking a risk assessment, reviewing aging infrastructure and ensuring the provision of counselling and support to students and staff affected by COVID-19.

Government restrictions on travel, which prevent people travelling from mainland China to Australia unless they are citizens or permanent residents, are preventing an estimated 100,000 students from attending class,  while university staff caught in mainland China are unable to return to work. These travel restrictions on international students and domestic students returning from mainland China are likely to disrupt the operations of Australian universities and student accommodation providers. For tertiary education providers, resources have been diverted to sourcing and implementing alternate delivery mechanisms for classes (for example, through online lectures, tutorials, learning modules and assessments). The commercial impacts to the Australian international education sector, the country's third largest export valued at $34 billion in 2018, are great – $12.1 billion estimated to be from Chinese students alone. According to the Australian Global Reputation Task Force, enrolments and revenue could be reduced by up to 30% as a result of COVID-19.  

Following the advice of the Government, many tertiary education providers are advising students and staff to cease all outbound travel to mainland China and are suspending their outbound mobility programs in mainland China. As a result of this suspension, many students are losing the opportunity to enrich their cultural awareness and have formative experiences facilitating personal development in mainland China, which has traditionally been a popular destination for outbound exchange students. The Ministry of Education of the People's Republic of China announced that mainland China was the most popular study abroad destination in Asia in 2018, with over 492,000 international students from 196 countries studying in China that year. Academic staff who intended to conduct research in mainland China have also lost opportunities to build their networks and enhance their professional development through in-field research, collaboration opportunities and participation in cross-cultural exchanges of information.

Organisations also have statutory obligations to ensure the health and safety of workers and other persons, which includes managing the risk of illnesses. Consequently, educational service providers must consider and implement appropriate procedures to prevent and mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Notably, this may involve reviewing and assessing existing on-campus residential college infrastructure, particularly if they are being used for quarantine purposes. In 2003, the World Health Organisation found that there were instances of SARS being spread through inadequate plumbing systems in residential buildings in Hong Kong. These concerns have been renewed following reports of people in residential buildings in Hong Kong being infected with COVID-19.

Given the number of people affected by COVID-19 it is highly likely that many students and staff have been personally affected in some way, whether it be through friends, family or colleagues who have been quarantined, caught by travel restrictions or are still in mainland China. This places a moral obligation on educational institutions to ensure that they are providing adequate support to staff and students, for example, through specific hotlines that provide advice and support to students and staff; increased on-campus counselling services; or Employee Assistance Programs.  

Conscious of the economic and social impacts, Vice Chancellors from a number of Australian universities have sought to assuage concerns from its international student body by releasing messages of support for students impacted by COVID-19 [see here].

Disruption to supply chains in the form of delays in the shipment of goods has been a secondary impact on educational service providers, as experienced by Australian retailers Harvey Normal and JB Hi-Fi.  The closure of factories in mainland China and restrictions on the import/export of goods has led these Australian retailers into difficulties with supplying their customers with goods from mainland China. For example, certain types of food products, particularly non-perishable goods, have been flying off the shelves in mainland China as locals prepare for emergency scenarios. Accommodation providers and residential halls are expected to be hit by this economic consequence as delays are passed down the supply chain.

While it is difficult to quantify the economic consequences of COVID-19 at this early stage, it is clear that businesses across the world are suffering financial loss as a result of restrictions on the travel of workers and supply of goods. For example, a 'worst-case scenario' study by Oxford Economics predicts that the global economy will 'grow slightly less – by 0.2 percentage points' as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak. COVID-19 has already cost Australia at least $1 billion, according to a UBS Australia study, and stands cause a $6 billion to $8 billion loss to the education sector.

On the Singapore side, Singapore has on a national level, implemented measures such as (i) issuing a leave of absence to returning residents with recent travel history to mainland China and those who had contact with any returning residents with such travel history, (ii) issuing quarantine orders to all Singapore residents who recently travelled to Hubei province and those with close contact with any confirmed COVID-19 cases, and (iii) banning visitors with recent travel history to mainland China from entering Singapore. As of 31 January 2020, nearly 1,000 school staff and students were put on leave of absence, with approximately 88% of which being students. It is likely that this number will continue to increase.

Similar to Australia, this will result in Singapore educational institutions diverting their resources to sourcing and implementing alternate delivery mechanisms such as implementing home based learning programmes especially for students on a leave of absence. For example, through the implementation of online lectures and implementing virtual events (such as, open house events) in place of physical ones.   

Furthermore, with Singapore taking a strict stance in implementing measures such as a mandatory leave of absence for workers returning from mainland China, businesses (including educational institutions) are expected to be affected in terms of being short staffed. The Ministry of Manpower of Singapore has as at 9 February 2020, banned 4 work pass holders from working in Singapore while 6 employers had their work pass privileged revoked for breaching the mandatory leave of absence.

Recommendations

 To reduce the impacts of COVID-19, organisations should adopt an appropriate risk mitigation strategy. This requires a multifaceted approach which assesses the risk profiles and critical risks for the key affected personnel. 
 At a minimum, this would include:

1. For students who have visited mainland China in the last 14 days (including international students returning to Australia to continue their education), inbound academics and professional staff who have visited affected areas within the last 14 days and outbound academics and professional staff with planned travel to mainland China (and other affected areas) for research or partnership initiatives:

  • Monitoring announcements of Chinese health authorities, the World Health Organisation, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, the Ministry of Health of Singapore and other regulatory services and ensure this information is passed on to staff and students by way of a communications plan and regularly maintaining communication;
  • Revisiting risk management plans used during the SARS and Swine Flu outbreak;  
  • Following the advice the Australian Department of Health and advising students and staff who have recently arrived from mainland China to self-isolate for 14 days;  
  • Following the measures (eg leave of absence and travel declarations) implemented by the Singapore Government for people who have recent travel history to mainland China;
  • Developing a response plan in the event that a student or staff member is affected by COVID-19;
  • Health monitoring;
  • Considering instructing office-based staff to work from home if they or someone they know have potentially been exposed to COVID-19;
  • Updating travel policies; and
  • Following the advice of the Australian Smart Traveller website and advising students and staff not to travel to mainland China.

2. For students attending inbound and outbound mobility programmes such as semester long exchanges or short term study tours:

  • Monitoring announcements of Chinese health authorities, the World Health Organisation, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia, the Ministry of Health of Singapore and other regulatory services and ensure this information is passed on to staff and students by way of a communications plan and regularly maintaining communication;
  • Updating travel policies;
  • Following the advice of the Australian Smart Traveller website and the Ministry of Health of Singapore and advising students not to travel to mainland China; and
  • Assessing the risks for students and staff already overseas and, based on that assessment, whether to recall them for the benefit of their health and safety.

3. For domestic and international students already in Australia or in Singapore:

  • Monitoring announcements of Chinese health authorities, the World Health Organisation, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade of Australia and the Ministry of Health of Singapore and other regulatory services and ensure this information is passed on to staff and students by way of a communications plan and regularly maintaining communication;
  • Doing risk assessments of existing policies and procedures, such as control policies, crisis management plans and employee plans, to control the risk of COVID-19; and
  • Considering providing personal protective equipment, such as masks and hand sanitiser, to staff and students who need to work outside.

As a general precaution, educational service providers should install hand wash and disinfectant stations across campus and, as part of any communication plan, outline safe hygiene practices.

For more information on COVID-19 and its implications on the business sector, please visit the Clyde & Co Coronavirus Information Hub here: https://www.clydeco.com/sectors/coronavirus-information-hub.