The impact of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) on Taiwan’s 152 universities, colleges, junior colleges and institutes is relatively modest, compared to other countries and regions around the world with classes suspended nation-wide and currently still in high-level lockdown. Taiwan acted quickly when news about atypical pneumonia cases in China were reported in December 2019. Through a series of protective and preventive measures coordinated by the Central Epidemic Command Center, which was activated on January 20 this year, Taiwan’s people are able to continue life as usual and enjoy certain freedoms that many people in the world are now sadly without.
While Taiwan leads the world in fighting the pandemic, like the rest of the global community, we share an uncertain future. The global economy and international relations are faced with unprecedented challenges whose precise effects are still unknown. Restrictions on travel and movement, while necessary to control the spread of the disease, pose severe difficulties to businesses, individuals, and the functioning of society. Students graduating this year will need advice and guidance as they enter the job force in this tumultuous year. Universities must step up to perform their roles as sites of learning and international cooperation and as drivers of growth and innovation.
Taiwan’s Ministry of Education has asked all higher education institutions to develop contingency plans in response to COVID-19, such as online teaching, scheduling drills, and setting criteria for suspending class and subsequent actions. The four main areas of concern are monitoring, disinfecting, ventilation, and prompt action/reaction. In this article, the Foundation for International Cooperation in Higher Education of Taiwan (FICHET) details the preventive measures implemented at Taiwan’s HEIs in response to COVID-19, in the hopes that sharing such information can offer assistance to HEIs around the world to protect their own staff and students.
Postponing the 2020 Spring Semester
Taiwan’s education system has two semesters per academic year (September-January and February-June). Due to the outbreak of COVID-19 in early January and in order to prevent cluster infection, the Ministry of Education followed the recommendation of the Central Epidemic Command Center and announced on February 2 that the start of the second semester will be postponed for two weeks, from February 11 to February 25. For elementary, middle school and high school, the semester will also end two weeks later than usual on July 14 in order to maintain 200 days of class per academic year. For HEIs, around a third of them started class on February 25 as well and two thirds on March 2. Regardless of the date, however, all universities will still deliver 18 weeks of class in accordance with national regulations.
The postponement of the second semester were spent disinfecting campuses, supplying school and university staff with surgical face masks, 75% alcohol spray, ear and forehead thermometers, and planning crowd control measures to manage the flow of people arriving on campus. All this were done through the cooperation between schools, universities, suppliers, Taiwan Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and related government agencies.
Taiwan managed to have health and safety measures in place before schools and universities started their second semester in February, so classes are mainly proceeding as usual. The exception is large-sized classes such as lectures with more than 100 students. On March 25, CDC strongly recommended suspending indoor events with more than 100 people and outdoor events with more than 500 people in order to prevent cluster infection. In response, many universities have decided to deliver lectures with more than one hundred students online. More recently, however, universities have also decided to use distance learning for classes with a smaller size. For example, National Chung Hsin University announced on April 6 that classes with more than seventy people will go online starting April 20, and National Taiwan University will do so for classes with more than sixty people starting April 27.
Preventive Health and Safety Measures at all HEIs
The main health risks in educational settings are people in close contact and congregating in closed spaces, thereby increasing the possibility of cluster infection and disease transmission. This concern for classrooms also applies to any closed spaces such as public transportation, offices, elevators, etc. The following describes the preventive health and safety measures implemented at every HEIs and concentrates on three areas: physical distance, health monitoring, and tracking history of travel, occupation, contact, and cluster (TOCC).
On April 1, CDC announced a tighter guideline in terms of physical distance: people should be at least 1.5 meters apart when indoors (previously 1 meter) and at least 1 meter outdoors. If this is not possible, then all members should wear face masks. Currently, all people must wear face masks if they use public transportation (closed spaces). While it is not mandatory for students to wear face masks in class, CDC strongly recommends all student and staff to observe the guidelines for physical distance and that classrooms must have good ventilation. Windows and, if possible, doors need to remain open.
Following spring break (April 2-5), all universities currently require all members and visitors to wear face masks on campus if the recommended physical distance cannot be maintained. Besides having no fever or flu-like syndromes, everyone must show their student or staff ID at the entrance before being admitted on campus. For example, Tamkang University’s Taipei campus has been implementing ID checks since March 23, National Sun Yat-Sen University will require all members to carry their ID badge starting April 10, and National Dong Hwa University requires all instructors to wear face masks in class from April 7.
University staff are stationed at the entrances of every campus and university buildings to measure people’s temperatures, which must be below 37.5 Celsius before being admitted, and provide hand sanitizers such as 75% alcohol spray. The government distributes thermometers and other related supplies to universities directly, besides guaranteeing that each citizen is entitled to purchase nine surgical face masks every fourteen days. If a student’s temperature exceeds 37.5 Celsius, they are immediately escorted to a separate room and their parent or guardian need to pick them up to self-isolate and monitor their own health at home for fourteen days. For international students, if they are required to self-isolate, university staff will take them to a separate housing that is designated for quarantine and provided by the university.
History of Travel, Occupation, Contact and Cluster (TOCC)
Besides travels abroad, Taiwan has now begun to keep track of people’s movement within the country. Although 86% of Taiwan’s confirmed COVID-19 cases are imported (338 out of 393 in total, as of April 13), local transmission and cluster infection remain high risks that and require vigilance. Following the four-day spring break, universities such as National Chengchi University emailed all students and staff on April 6 to ask them to declare, besides foreign travel history, whether they have been to the eleven popular destinations that CDC designated as overly crowded and therefore potential sites of cluster infection.
In addition to travel history, universities also keep track of students’ contact history on campus, such as which classrooms they have been to and when. For example, students would scan a QR code posted outside the classroom before they enter, and universities will manage this database and alert relevant students if anyone developed symptoms and/or tested positive for the coronavirus. Even if it is a physical education class and students are outdoors, if one of them develops symptoms, the whole class must self-isolate at home for fourteen days.
CDC and universities are working tirelessly to disseminate correct information about preventive measures through websites, emails, posters, and multimedia. Here are some examples:
Another urgent matter is preparations for upcoming national exams. The large crowd and close proximity between people in closed spaces pose high risk of cluster infection. The national university entrance exam is scheduled for July 3-5 and more than 40,000 people is expected to attend. But first there are two national exams due to take place in May. On April 9, the Ministry of Education announced detailed measures for the two national entrance exams in May, one for two- and four-year technical and vocational programs (May 2-3, resit May 23-24) and the other is the high schools entrance exam (May 16-17, resit May 30-31). The numbers of examinees for each exam are 95,135 and 209,045, respectively.
There are six key points:
1) Everyone including invigilators will need to wear face masks, which the government will distribute to examinees prior to the exam (one mask per day of exam). Those who don’t will be refused entry.
2) Everyone will need to have their body temperatures taken.
3) Only examinees can enter the venue, not their family or friends.
4) Rooms need to be well ventilated at all times and disinfected, with hand sanitizers in good supply.
5) Crowd control measures will follow the recommended physical distance, especially at entrances and exits. Family and friends will be asked to spread out and wait at different exits to avoid crowding.
6) Examinees who are at the time self-isolating or home quarantined will attend the resit session in late May. If an examinee develops a fever on the second day of the exam, they will need to refrain from attending, follow official health procedures, and take the second-day exam of the resit session. The Ministry of Education emphasizes that protecting examinees’ examination rights will be one of the top priorities.
Taiwan’s HEIs are working closely with the Ministry of Education and the Central Epidemic Command Center to protect their staff and student from the coronavirus disease and infection. The current academic year is expected to end in early July. While there are no detailed updates about the next academic year yet, we expect it to begin as usual during mid-September and are keeping a close eye on latest developments.
Responding to COVID-19 is a weekly series dedicated to reporting the latest preventive measures implemented by and affecting Taiwan’s higher education.