“No student will be left behind at the end of the day. This relates to when will we finish the academic year. We want to say to our people and stakeholders, no one can claim to have experience of what we are facing, that is why we consult,” Higher Education, Science and Innovation Minister, Dr Blade Nzimande, said on Thursday.
In a virtual joint media briefing with Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga on Thursday evening, Nzimande said that as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the academic year might not be concluded in 2020.
“We might not finish the academic year for everybody by November or early December . We might finish in February for some and in March if that is going to ensure that no-one gets left behind. We are hoping it will not be later than April, if we happen to finish next year. We can plan and do everything, but it’s how the virus behaves,” said the Minister in response to a question.
Earlier in the briefing, the Minister announced a raft of interventions aimed at helping the (PSET) sector as the country moves to level 4 of the nationwide lockdown aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.
The interventions for universities and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges 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.
The Minister also announced that campus-based learning will be put on hold as the country moves to level 4 of the lockdown on 1 May.
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.
Laptops and online learning
Among the other interventions announced, include the finalising of the procurement and distribution of laptops for all students and its connectivity into digital remote learning platforms.
Expanding on the move to online learning, Nzimande admitted that the country does not have capacity for “full blown” online education and this was partly due to fact that South Africa has an unequal society.
“Rather lets work between now and 1 June such that by the beginning of June we are able to resume academic activities for the rest of the students, irrespective of where they are, whether they have laptops or connectivity or not. We may not be able to do it in exactly the same way because we want to be fair also.”
NSFAS and the missing middle
He said students on the National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS) will continue to receive funding.
“The likely extension of the academic year will require additional funding to maintain allowances for students while they complete the academic year. As a Department, we are therefore working with NSFAS, in modelling these costs.
Given the fact that all our universities have already disbursed learning material allowances to their NSFAS supported students, I would like to urge our students who have not as yet utilised their allowance to use their allowances to purchase appropriate electronic learning devices to support their learning during this time,” he said.
The procurement of laptops will be phased-in.
“We have already started exploring. We might not have any single source that may be able to give these to us on time, which means that we will actually have to phase it in as we are able to get it. Our commitment is that we will do so."
On missing middle students, Nzimande said he made an undertaking at the start of the year to investigate the possibility of assisting missing middle students with affordable loans.
“ I’m still committed to that, even on issues of laptops.I want to have a discussion with universities as well as others as to how to assist those missing middle students.”
The Minister expressed his appreciation to universities that have already assisted some students with laptops.
Skills development and training
Nzimande said the country’s Sector Education and Training Authorities (SETAs) working with all social partners will ensure that during the months of May-June, learners returning to the workplaces and training institutions, do so in line with their gradual opening as per level 4 guidelines.
“I have extended the due date for the submission of the Workplace Skills Plans (“WSP”) Annual Training Reports (“ATR”) by the employers which are submitted on 30 April every year, to 31 May 2020, in the light of the nationwide lockdown.”
In addition, the Minister has issued a directive to all SETAs to continue with the payment of learner stipends during the nationwide lockdown period.
“We are also implementing measures at INDLELA, where our trade tests are conducted, at the main security entrance, to limit the risk of infections to all those who are entering the premises in strict compliance with the COVID-19 protocols and requirements.”
In the same vain, the National Skills Fund (NSF) will be engaging the public and private Skills Development Providers (SDPs) on the dates and modalities of resuming learning as soon as such decisions are made.
In addition, the department is developing a concrete plan on the training of various categories of frontline workers, particularly those working in health facilities and other industries, as part of the COVID-19 awareness campaign. This follows a request by the National Education, Health and Allied Workers' Union (NEHAWU).
Funding has been set aside for the training of almost 18 000 frontline health workers, the leadership and membership of trade unions, shop stewards and other workers who are dealing with Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), within the context of COVID-19.
The training will take the form of information sharing sessions, as well as technical sessions.
All the sessions will be online to ensure maximum coverage and reach.