South Africa’s higher education institutions (HEIs) have been adapting to a new reality – one of living under Covid-19 regulations and the new ways of teaching as well as learning – since March 2020, when a national state of disaster was declared by president Cyril Ramaphosa.
As of midnight, 21st September 2020, the country moved from alert level 2 to 1 of the national lockdown introduced to curb the spread of the virus in late March. A maximum of 33% of students were allowed back on campus during alert level 3 and 66% in level 2.
The last is a sizeable percentage when considering that the latest ‘Statistics on Post-School Education and Training in South Africa: 2018’, which was released in March, states: “Over 1.2 million students enrolled at public and private HEIs in 2018, with majority of enrolments in public HEIs (1 085 568) while private HEIs enrolled 197 898 students.”
The report adds: “The majority of enrolments in public HEIs were through the contact mode (685 069 or 63.1%), while 400 499 or 36.9% enrolled through the distance mode of learning.”
Under alert level 1, most campus-based activities can normally resume while stakeholders practice non-pharmaceutical measures needed to minimise the spread of the virus; nonetheless, there are concerns: ‘How ready are institutions to accommodate the remaining 34% of students?’ and ‘What measures are in place?’
A Government Gazette, which was published on 8th June 2020, has guidelines about the criteria for the return of public and private HEIs in terms of the Disaster Management Act and as part of the risk-adjusted strategy. The strategy allows for a phased-in return from alert level 3 to 1 of the national lockdown.
Based on a speech by the minister of the higher education department, Blade Nzimande, the criteria were developed in consultation with various stakeholders, including representatives from Universities South Africa, South African College Principal Organization, labour unions, South African Students Union and Council on Education. Using those criteria, “institutions have been implementing their own students return strategies in line with their teaching and learning and campus readiness plans,” read the speech.
The higher education department also published a speech featuring new directives, which were announced by the minister and outlined return plans for the county’s major institutions.
One of the directives states that the return process needs to be controlled. “Any uncontrolled return would be highly irresponsible and place the lives of students and staff at risk. All students that cannot be safely reintegrated, will continue to be supported through remote multimodal teaching, learning and assessment until they can return to campus,” according to the speech.
Institutions were placed in risk-related stages – low, medium or high risk – depending on their location. A total of 14 local institutions were allocated to the low risk bracket, 6 at medium and another 6 at high.
Universities deemed as low risk include the Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), Nelson Mandela University (NMU), Rhodes University (RU), University of Cape Town (UCT), University of Johannesburg (UJ) and University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN).
The medium risk category feature institutions such as the Durban University of Technology (DUT), Tshwane University of Technology (TUT) and University of Limpopo (UL). Those deemed at high risk include the Mangosuthu University of Technology (MUT), University of Fort-Hare (UFH) and Vaal University of Technology (VUT).
At DUT, each student and staff member have been issued with a permit as a means of gaining access to campus premises. The permit needs to be produced at the respective campus gate to the security officer(s). Student residences also implemented measures such as curfew times, availing students with masks, sanitizers next to the gates and doors.
Malusi Zuma, a University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN) tutor at Edgewood Campus and the institution’s alumnus, told TOJ that the measures put in place by UKZN have been working up to this stage.
“They saw that it was going to be impossible to curb the spread of this virus if they stuck to normal ways of doing things in this ‘new normal’, so the first thing that they did was to ban visitors until the situation eased,” said Zuma. “What followed was the curfew times, which are still in place by the way; the gate closes at 18:00 until 06:00.”
“Any student, who is registered at UKZN, is not allowed in the premises without a permit. Sanitizers are outside of most frequently used doors, so I am positive that even though not everything is perfect, the institution and its residences are ready for the alert level 1 batch of students,” Zuma added.
According to a Berea Technical College student, who asked to be referred to as Nosipho Mkhwanazi, adherence to the rules is only happening in public university properties. “I live in one of the student flats on Bell Groove Road, and the DUT outsourced residence is the only residence in the area that seemed to be following the rules and regulations.”
“Not to say that precautions are not there in the private student accommodations, there are sanitizers and all the good, useful things to prevent the virus, but the number of people made social distancing impossible when they first started pouring in,” Mkhwanazi said.
“You can ask anyone; on-campus residences are the only residences that are ready because outsourced residences are just flats which are in it for business, whereas campus residences are owned by the institution and institutions value safety, rules and regulations” Mkhwanazi added.
TOJ also looked at some student communes around UJ’s Auckland Park campuses. Most student accommodations located in this part of the city are privately owned.
One of the students residing in Auckland Park is Njabulo Bhengu, a second year UJ student pursuing a Computer Sciences degree. Bhengu lives in one of the student communes near his campus and he sees very little readiness in his commune.
“There are a few precautionary measures in place; there are no rules. All there is are sanitizers: one by the main door and the other next to the bathroom. The goal for them (landlords) is to make money. They care less about our health and safety,” Bhengu said.
Lerato Mlenza, a second year UJ student, studies a BCom in Industrial Psychology. Mlenza resides in one of UJ’s National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) accredited accommodation in Doornfontein. She said that daily screening and sanitizers are available at the off-campus residence.
“Most safety measures are in place, except for social distancing as sometimes we forget to keep a distance; we know we should not, but it happens.” Mleza explained. TOJ
Reporting by Nkosingiphile Dladla in Durban and Hendrica Nkoana in Johannesburg. Editing by Gaby Ndongo. Feature image: Covid-19 notice posters next to the entrance of the Durban University of Technology’s City Campus library. Image courtesy to Nkosingiphile Dladla.