Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, on Thursday said government has decided not to resume with campus-based academic activity throughout the PSET sector.
“Guided by the work and decisions of the National Command Council (NCC), we have decided not to resume with campus-based academic activity throughout the PSET sector, including all universities and TVET [ Technical and Vocational Education and Training ] colleges, both public and private, during the Level 4 lockdown period,” Nzimande said on Thursday.
The Minister’s comments were made at a much-anticipated media briefing held by the Minister and his Basic Education colleague, Minister Angie Motshekga.
The decision not to resume campus-based academic activity comes as South Africa on Thursday marked day 35 of the Level 5 national lockdown, aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19.
South Africa will enter Level 4 of the national lockdown on Friday, 1 May 2020.
Nzimande said the only exception to the decision is the controlled return of final-year Clinical Training (medical) students, under strict conditions, to also directly assist with the health management campaign of the Department of Health.
The Minister said the risks of a return to normal campus-based activity for thousands of students and staff is simply too great and cannot function successfully outside of the national context of the general lockdown.
“Against this background and with the endorsement of the NCC, we have decided that the current period, from 1 May until South Africa transitions to a lower COVID-19 risk phase, must be used to put a number of critical interventions in place across the PSET system,” he said.
Critical interventions put in place include the development and implementation of effective multi-modal remote learning systems (digital, analogue and physical delivery of learning materials) to provide a reasonable level of academic support to all students at all institutions.
“As we are in an unprecedented emergency, we have to use all available tools to reach our students, fully cognisant that it will not substitute the need for contact learning when conditions permit. This we will do, making sure that no student or institution is left behind,” said the Minister.
In addition, the department is also close to reaching a deal with major mobile network operators around data and connectivity to support remote learning.
Physical delivery of learning materials is recommended where no immediate digital means are ready to ensure that students are provided with instructional materials.
“[We are] finalising the procurement and distribution of devices (laptops) for all students and connectivity to digital remote learning platforms. In this regard, I would like to appeal to all students to ensure that they urgently register their correct numbers with their institutions so that when we finalise the educational rate for data, we can load it to the correct number so that all students can benefit,” said the Minister.
Deep cleaning and biosafety protocols to ensure readiness for the eventual return of students and staff will also take place. The deep cleansing of campuses will be done by SMMEs and cooperatives.
In addition, partnerships will be forged with both Departments of Health and Basic Education to coordinate all efforts to successfully and safely implement the 2020 academic year and the phasing in of the 2021 academic year.
Nzimande said the intention is to use this phase for planning and preparation at all universities and TVET colleges.
“Our collective efforts during this period remain that of putting appropriate remote learning support systems in place for all our PSET institutions, using whatever means available, whilst preparing our institutional capacities for the eventual return of students and staff, once conditions permit such.”
When students return to campuses, protocols will be in place for the maintenance of physical distancing, access to hand sanitisers and protective masks, and continual deep cleaning of facilities.
In addition, the reopening of campuses will entail the screening/testing of staff and students, with the environmental cleaning of campuses and residences.
Government is also identifying sites for quarantine facilities in or near institutions, as may be required.
Mental health support will also be availed for students, as well as other forms of support necessary for staff and students throughout.
“In a joint effort, Higher Health - supported by the Department of Health, the National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD), USAf, SACPO and other organisations - has developed a comprehensive and clear set of PSET guidelines on managing COVID-19 in the sector, post lockdown,” said Nzimande.
The Minister said the guidelines will be distributed formally to all universities, TVET and Community Education and Training Colleges (CET) colleges and other sub-sectors for implementation.
For universities, the 2020 academic year will be re-organised to enable all institutions and their students to complete their academic requirements, with the prospects of extending into early 2021. This will depend on the epidemiology and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic threat.
The completion of the 2020 academic year and the start of the 2021 academic year will be aligned with the plans of the Department of Basic Education, in terms of the completion cycle of the National Senior Certificate (NSC) examinations, and the release of the NSC results.
Any plans to reopen universities for contact learning over the coming months will have to be calibrated within national COVID-19 health and safety parameters.
“As a result of the highly uncertain and fluid social context imposed by the viral threat on every aspect of South African society, it is not possible to determine with any measure of certainty the dates when physical return to campuses for the bulk of our students will be possible,” Nzimande said.
Efforts are, however, being made to put in place multiple and flexible methods of teaching and learning.
“Our institutions will continue to offer training and support to academic staff and students in respect of the necessary technologies and mechanisms required to support teaching and learning,” the Minister said.
Meanwhile, the department, assisted by the Centre for Industrial and Scientific Research (CSIR), is working on developing a geospatial model to map the levels and quality of connectivity, bandwidth and distribution of learning and co-learning centres in various districts throughout the country.
Nzimande said government is aware that the pandemic has created new significant financial pressure on universities.
This includes the stalled infrastructure projects on various campuses, including student residences.
To unblock this, government has made a provision for controlled relaxation to enable stalled infrastructure projects to be resumed from 1 May, subject to adherence to strict health protocols.
For the TVET sector, the 2020 academic year will also be restructured in line with the continuity of the lockdown under level four national protocols.
“This entails the need to restructure national examinations for the trimester, semester and full-year programmes,” said the Minister, adding that TVET colleges will have to reorganise the academic year.
This is to enable students to complete trimesters 1 and 2 for Engineering Studies, both semesters for Business Studies, and the full-year NC(V) programmes.
Trimester 3, which should have taken place from August to November 2020, will be deferred to a date to be determined after consultation with stakeholders. This is to ensure that students are adequately prepared for the examinations.
A calendar detailing the commencement and end of classes, the examination sessions, as well as the short recess period will be released.
“In acknowledgement of the fact that almost all TVET college students do not have devices to work online, and furthermore do not have access to data, various other support initiatives have been explored to support students remotely, whilst simultaneously working on acquiring devices for all NSFAS students,” said Nzimande.