Student housing solutions in an era of COVID-19
Monday, August, 3, 2020 by Wagdy Sawahel
Around the continent, university students face a shortfall of student accommodation, a situation exacerbated by the current COVID-19 pandemic containment measures which call for fewer students in living spaces.
At universities in Kenya and South Africa, students face a shortfall of over 600,000 and 300,000 beds at universities respectively.
“With the WHO voicing alarm at the spread of the coronavirus in Africa, African students living in dormitory-style accommodation will have to adhere to strict hygiene and social distancing measures, as under such conditions, a single COVID-19 infection could yield an uncontrolled outbreak within very short time,” Morad Ahmed Morad, professor of medicine at Egypt’s Tanta University, told University World News.
He said students should undergo COVID-19 testing and participate in online awareness programmes before moving in to university residences.
He suggested that isolation wards be established within student residences. These should be equipped with IT capabilities to allow students with exceptional circumstances or health concerns to participate in classes remotely. WHO guidance for accommodation and hotel providers must be strictly implemented, Morad added.
According to architect and urban designer Sean Kenealy, who is also director at STAG African, a student accommodation group in South Africa, the current situation called for a “reconsideration” of the design of student accommodation.
“Hundreds of students across the continent are in traditional dormitory type accommodation, sharing communal facilities … putting them at risk of viral infection,” Kenealy told University World News.
“We need to implement ways of limiting social interaction, without losing the vitally important aspect of community. We have re-examined and tested the appropriateness of our pod-design solution. With eight students per pod and two per bedroom, we are better able to mitigate a pandemic such as the current one.
“This design limits personal interactions to just eight people, as opposed to older, institutional-type student housing designs, some of which have hundreds of students per floor. It allows for the effective implementation of health and safety deliverables,” Kenealy said.
Kenealy cited the example of a recent COVID-19 infection at one of the STAG residences. The other seven occupants of the pod tested negative, which meant that the infected student was quarantined in the pod and only seven of the 210 students in the residence had to be isolated.
“Our pod design provides communal living which closely replicates the home environment. This is an important element of familiarity in an otherwise daunting and often impersonal campus environment, particularly for first-year students. In this way, we provide a more conducive learning environment and more intimate social relationships, all of which assist with the enforcement of sanitisation measures, mask wearing and other healthcare imperatives,” Kenealy said.
“Addressing affordability is the first step to solving the backlog of hundreds of thousands of beds across the continent. … A fundamental change in the procurement and delivery of student accommodation is required,” Kenealy said.
He suggested that on-site building activities and therefore the cost of student bed space could be significantly reduced by utilising a cellular concrete walling system and adopting a Design for Manufacture and Assembly (DfMA) approach to building.
“A Student Early Alert System for COVID-19 (SEAS) could be set up for instructors to connect students to on-campus resources and support services. …SEAS could support students with practical help through the use of mobile applications, internet, social media, radio or TV,” Ayah Mohamed Abdel-Fatah, a female student at the Higher Institute of Engineering and Technology in Mansoura, Egypt, told University World News.
Ayman El Tarabishy, Deputy Chair of the Management Department at US-based George Washington University, told University World News that no matter what “innovative” ideas were generated by student accommodations, there would always be “a greater risk when many people live so close together”.
“Currently, accommodations are high-risk, so we must think of other options to ensure students are capable of learning in a COVID-19 environment,” El Tarabishy added.
He said a big question that came to mind was: “Do universities have the large but necessary budgets to ensure that all precautions are being taken?”
“In my opinion, if universities are able to take on the enormous costs of re-modelling their accommodations, then they would certainly be able to invest in their students by offering them the hardware and software necessary for digital learning,” El Tarabishy said.
“Let’s let online learning be one of the many assets that we give our students”, El Tarabishy said.