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Universities plan workarounds as coronavirus spreads

Image: Daniel Parks [CC BY-NC 2.0], via Flickr

Virtual doors open as actual doors close in France

Higher education and research institutions across France are preparing for partial shutdowns due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 coronavirus.

A range of measures are already underway, including self-quarantining of staff and students and the cancellation of open days. Experiments with distance learning are happening at some institutions, according to reports from universities.

However, Frédérique Vidal, minister for higher education and research, said that she did not envisage a “total closure” of higher education institutions even as the country hit 1,000 confirmed cases last week.

The news comes as Italy extends its lockdown to the entire population of around 60 million people. Last week, the Italian government announced the temporary closure of all schools and universities nationwide.

Vidal has been meeting the heads of universities and grandes écoles to plan for an intensification of France’s national response to the virus. An unnamed ministry source told the Les Echos newspaper that a blanket policy of closure would be enforced “only if there is no other alternative, so as not to create panic”.

Many institutions are turning to online services to remain open. Last week, staff from the Poitiers-based National Centre for Distance Education visited the ministry of education in Paris to give a demonstration of internet-based learning technologies to assembled journalists.

However, not all subjects are created equal when it comes to distance work and learning. Laurent Champaney, head of the engineering school Arts et Métiers ParisTech and vice-president of the Conference of Grandes Écoles, said practical work would “be difficult to do from a distance”.

The worst-affected area in France is Oise, north of Paris. On 29 February, the regional government put measures in place to restrict gatherings and travel. Crèches, nurseries, primary schools and high schools—both public and private—have been ordered to close from 9 to 22 March. Universities in the region are exempt, however, with potential closures left up to individual administrations.

The University of Picardie Jules Verne has closed the doors of its Creil campus and does not expect to reopen before 15 March. As of 9 March, the University of Technology of Compiègne, also in the region, plans to remain open but a crisis meeting has been called to discuss possible closure. A planned open day was cancelled, as was a semester abroad for 100 students.

Engineering school UniLaSalle will offer online teaching for staff who have been asked to remain at home or cannot come to work as they are minding children. Job interviews will also be conducted via videoconference, the school’s leaders said.

Meanwhile, higher education establishments across France were due to hold open days for prospective students last weekend. Many cancelled, including the University of Southern Brittany. The university’s president Jean Peeters said: “We are trying to prepare, but this coronavirus crisis is likely to affect the functioning of the university.”

In the east of the country, the University of Strasbourg and the University of Upper Alsace both cancelled their open days after discussions with the rectorate and local government.

Others have sought innovative alternatives to mass gatherings, including holding virtual open days on online platforms such as Facebook and Discord.

More than 1,100 Covid-19 cases have now been reported nationwide. On 8 March, it was announced that Marc Mézard, head of the École Normale Supérieure in Paris, one of France’s most prestigious graduate schools, had contracted the ailment and was self-confining at home.

Meanwhile, some 364 Sciences Po students from various campuses across the country have been asked to self-quarantine. This follows a letter from the government to all schools asking any students who have been to China to do so.

Universities near the Italian border have also taken measures to halt the spread of the disease. The University Savoie Mont Blanc and the Nice-based University of Côte d’Azur have both cancelled planned exchanges with Italian institutions.

Université Paris Sciences et Lettres told Research Professional that its constituent institutions were applying the guidelines provided by the government. France has now banned public gatherings of more than 1,000 people to try to slow the virus’s spread, health minister Olivier Véran said on 8 March.