Visitors are engulfed in a mist of sanitiser as they entered the Mohinder Singh Randhawa Library of Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, which can house at least 850 people. On Tuesday, nearly seven months after Covid-19 first hit, leading to the eventual closing down of campuses, the hallowed halls of this iconic library, and the scenic, green campus it is part of, bounced back to life.
At the library, around 20 students are seated, wearing masks and observing social distancing. Right opposite the library are the lush green grounds that house the university cafeteria and Students’ Home, the most happening point of the varsity, where students and staff gather under the warm winter sun for a cup of coffee.
Sameer Kumar, an employee of the cafeteria, says, “It had been nearly seven months since our cafeteria was closed. We opened again just a few days ago. I earn Rs 10,000 a month working here but when it closed, I returned to my native place in Himachal Pradesh. There was barely any work there, and I started working as a daily wager. I am thrilled seeing PAU bustling with students again, but there’s still a long way to go before we return to pre-Covid times. But today at least I can see some students coming to buy coffee and patties…”
The Punjab government, in its recent orders, has allowed phased reopening of colleges and universities from November 16. As per the guidelines issued by the higher education department, initially, only departments with hands-on training such as the department of medicine or sciences will be opened. This will be followed by the departments where hands-on training can be delayed such as commerce and management and it is only after assessing the situation that the departments of arts and languages will be opened. Also, in the first phase, only the final year students will be called for physical classes and on any day, not more than 50 per cent students will be present. As far as possible, online mode of content delivery will be the preferred mode. Most importantly, the entire varsity staff has to be tested with RT-PCR for Covid-19. To start with, only half of the hostel capacity should be utilised, say the guidelines.
PAU registrar R S Sidhu said that while the varsity is now allowing final year postgraduate and PhD students to visit the campus and consult their teachers for their final projects/thesis, students who were having their practical experiments/research works in the field were already coming. “We are yet to take a call on physical classes for all courses and the Covid testing of the entire staff as the government guidelines were received on Monday only. We will issue detailed guidelines and instructions for all students once a decision is taken on resuming physical classes for undergraduate/postgraduate and PhD students but currently only online classes are happening,” he said.
At the cafeteria near the Students’ Home, Satinder Kaur, a PhD student from Jalandhar, walks around looking for a charging point for her laptop while preparing for her seminar. “Covid has thrown life off-track. There is panic, worry and tension all the time. It has been nearly six months since I visited the campus today but can’t even access the library because my ID card hasn’t been issued yet. More than anything else, Covid has impacted the mental health of students. There is uncertainty and worry all the time but it is good to see that the campus is limping back to normalcy. But it is not good to see that people have started taking the pandemic lightly. Despite masks being mandatory on campus, most people are roaming without one.”
Anand, a final student of MSc biochemistry, says, “A casual approach towards Covid has started on campus which isn’t a good sign. Masks utar rahe hain (masks are coming off) and people are getting careless. Covid has not ended. Also, Covid has greatly impacted our seriousness towards studies. We are taking academics very lightly due to online classes, which is not good. Online mode of teaching can never replace offline/classroom teaching.”
Amarjot Singh from Kapurthala and his classmate Jaspreet Singh from Muktsar, both students of final year in agricultural engineering, said they have returned to the campus after nearly six months and could feel the difference. “Now we need to take appointment from our teachers if we have to discuss anything. There can simply be no substitute for classroom teaching, especially in engineering where we need practical classes for understanding concepts and solving numericals. The campus looked gloomy when Covid started and now it is slowly coming back to life..,” they said.
At the university’s largest and central MS Randhawa Library, Sanjeev Kumar, deputy librarian, says only 25 students/members are allowed to be seated at one time, that too in the two outer reading halls. “We have space to seat at least 850 readers but currently we are allowing 25 persons only, that too at the fixed allotted seat with social distancing. Remaining students can get books issued online. They mail us the title, we locate that book and they can pick it from the gate without coming inside. Also, most journals/research material have been uploaded online for students to access on the varsity’s website. The entire library is fumigated frequently,” he said. “Right now we are only allowing postgraduate and PhD students to sit and study in the two outer reading halls. On regular days, our library used to be full to its capacity but slowly things are returning to normal,” he adds.
Ravinder Kaur Dhaliwal, director, students welfare, PAU, and in-charge for hostels, said, “We have six hostels each for girls and boys and one for international students. Some final-year PG and PhD students were staying already because of their research experiments and field projects. All of them are staying in single-occupancy per room arrangement. Social distancing is being followed in mess. Hostels aren’t open yet for undergraduate students yet.”
Meanwhile, Covid has also made PAU staffers use their qualifications beyond their call of duty. Param Pal Sahota, chief librarian, Dr M S Randhawa library, and a qualified microbiologist, has been on the job to prepare liters of sanitiser herself using ethanol, sodium hypochlorite and other chemicals. “Apart from the spray fountain at the entrance of the library, we have installed machines at other points too. I am preparing sanitiser myself for usage in library,” she says.
Gurinder Kaur Sangha, dean, postgraduate studies, PAU, said that all pHD students and final year postgraduate students have been allowed to visit labs/fields and meet teachers on campus. “Earlier they were not being given accommodation in hostels but now we have allowed it with single occupancy in each room. Teaching is being done online only for all. For freshers in all courses including undergraduate, online classes are ongoing,” she said.
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