What has the COVID cluster at IIT-M taught other colleges in Chennai?

The sudden spurt of COVID cases on the IIT-Madras campus last December, shortly after it reopened, has been an eye-opener for other institutions. Here's what they are doing.

The sudden spurt of COVID cases on the IIT-Madras campus last December, shortly after it reopened, has been the subject of close scrutiny in many quarters. Within 18 days of the first two cases detected, the institution recorded 199 cases (179 students, three persons in the quarters, 16 mess workers and a carpenter), leading to a new cluster.

At around the same time, many colleges in the city reopened for final year students and research scholars. The outbreak at IIT-Madras has alerted them to the need for revisiting safety protocols and demonstrated why it is important to not let our guards down too soon.

Throwing caution to the winds

First things first: what led to the formation of a new cluster within the IIT-M campus? According to a research scholar in the campus, 700 students were dining in one mess that led to the spread of COVID cases. Until the breakout, the Himalaya Mess was the only mess that was functional, which naturally led to crowding. The scholar also pointed out that the management failed to inform students when the institution began to report the first few cases.

According to another scholar, the Institute had not been rigorous enough in implementing COVID-safety norms in late November. Officials state that sharing of restrooms, lapses in monitoring students and staff coming from outside, and delay in testing the contacts of infected people were some of the reasons that led to the rapid spread of infection.

Following the outbreak and the criticism that it attracted, the Institute has begun operating multiple dining halls in the hostels. Earlier, there was just one caterer cooking the food for all students, who were less than 600 in number, but recently, it has introduced a second caterer.

According to an official from the management of IIT-Madras, the number of caterers depends on the total number of students. The number of dining halls open, however, is independent of the number of caterers and is linked with physical distancing norms and total number of students dining.

How have other colleges looked at reopening?

Taking a leaf out of the IIT-M experience, educational institutions in the city have prepared a standard operating procedure for reopening colleges. 

Anna University recorded sporadic cases late December, following which an official stated that the playground, indoor courts and other such spaces were closed to check congregations in large numbers.

The first year and final year MBBS students of Kilpauk Medical College have been attending college from December 1st. The institution has been stringent in enforcing 14-day quarantine norms for hostellers who travel from other cities/states. 

“The reopening was done in a phased manner to minimise crowding. Besides the standard protocols, we have cancelled study tours, field work and extracurricular activities and only 10 members are allowed in the library’s reading room at any point of time,” said KMC Dean Dr P Vasanthamani.

Professors are adopting a hybrid teaching methodology to ensure learning is not compromised. Students have been divided into smaller groups for lectures and theory classes are also being held via Google Classroom. For postgraduate students, clinical postings are done in small groups in a rotational manner. 

The KMC administration has barred students from sharing hostel rooms under any circumstance. At present, one room is allotted for one student. To ensure, there is minimal contact with other, lunch breaks are staggered. Food packets are delivered to students between 12 noon and 2 pm in their rooms to prevent crowding at canteens and dining halls.

The college has also appointed an assistant to monitor if students are adhering to safety norms like masking and maintaining the minimum requisite distance.

Likewise, the Madras Christian College has also charted a safety protocol. With six halls (hostels) situated on campus, residents have been advised to undergo a PCR test before they start attending classes. Only those who test negative will be allowed to be physically present in classes.

The college has established tie-ups with the government-authorised COVID-19 treatment centres in and around Tambaram, including the government hospital at Chrompet, King Institute and other private hospitals. 

The employees of the institution have been reporting fo duty since June. So far, the institution has had around eight COVID cases within the campus. “We tested, isolated and treated the patients as soon as it was brought to our notice. We have broken the COVID chain, at least for now, in our institution,” said MCC Principal Dr P Wilson. 

Like KMC, MCC also staggers the timing of breakfast, lunch and dinner and food is delivered to the respective halls. “By now, the students should have grasped what the new normal is like and we hope they act responsibly”, added Wilson.

Useful pointers

Here are some pointers for educational institutions to consider, as they reopen amid the pandemic.

  • Ensure daily thermal screening for every student residing in the hostels
  • Every hostel should have a strict protocol with regard to the entry and exit, to avoid unnecessary exposure.
  • Positive cases should be intimated to parents or guardians immediately. 
  • If a COVID-positive student requires hospitalization, they should be referred to the government or private medical agencies subject to the consent of parents.
  • A COVID nodal officer can be appointed from each hostel who will report to the college nodal office. A daily update in standard format can be sent by the hostel nodal officer to the college nodal officer. Follow up can be done by the medical team.
  • The hostel nodal officer can closely monitor the health of students.
  • An officer/student may be appointed to monitor COVID-19 safety protocols.
  • Quarantine/isolation centres should be set up within the campus.
  • Institutions that offer air conditioned transportation facilities can direct temperature settings at 24-30 degrees C, relative humidity at 40-70% with provision for intake of fresh air.

(Sourced from the guidelines issued by MCC and SRM Institute of Science and Technology.)

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