Coronavirus & Higher Education

Wits and UCT suspend all contact classes 

By Estelle Ellis 16 March 2020
Caption
Wits University. (Photo: Wikimedia)

A student at the University of the Witwatersrand and a staff member of the University of Cape Town tested positive for Covid-19 over the weekend, moving most institutions to announce far-reaching short-term measures.

President Cyril Ramaphosa announced yesterday (Sunday 15 March) that Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande will consult with vice-chancellors of universities and colleges across the country and will soon be announcing measures to be taken by institutions of higher learning.

The University of Cape Town, however, yesterday announced its early closure for the March holidays after a staff member tested positive for the coronavirus. Students were told to vacate residences.

And after a Wits student, who is studying at the medical school, tested positive for Covid-19 over the weekend, Wits University announced that all contact teaching and university activity that requires “face to face meetings” will be suspended. The 350 students who were in contact with the infected student will be quarantined. 

Wits further announced that all students are expected to confine themselves to their dorm rooms or stay at home and practise social distancing. The university said special arrangements will be made for students using communal dining halls. It added that employees are required to come to work but that meetings and group work must be limited. 

All graduation ceremonies have also been suspended. 

In a statement on Sunday night, University of Cape Town vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng said the institution will be closed immediately and students must vacate residences within 72 hours. She said a date for the reopening of the institution will be announced in due course. 

She confirmed that one of the university’s staff members had tested positive for Covid-19. 

“The University of Cape Town (UCT) executive and the leadership lekgotla, following the recent address by State President Cyril Ramaphosa and on the advice of a range of agencies and health specialists, took a decision this afternoon to break immediately for the Term 1 vacation and to suspend classes as from and including Monday, 16 March 2020.

“We were persuaded of the importance of this step as a precautionary, proactive measure to minimise the risk of spreading Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). The most important public health principle is containment of the disease as far as possible, including avoiding social gatherings and minimising groups of people gathering in one space.

“We will therefore, in the context of the declaration of a national disaster, close the residences. Students must therefore vacate the residences within 72 hours from 16 March 2020.

“We will communicate our broader plan with respect to online learning by the end of the week, or as soon as possible thereafter. Postgraduate students are advised to continue working with their supervisors and to work off campus as far as possible.” 

She said staff will continue to work, and will work off-campus as far as possible. 

“Members of the university community who are well and who have been in close contact with the [infected] staff member have been instructed to remain in quarantine for 14 days while being monitored for symptoms. Currently, the recommended action for a single case in a school or university is to remain open. Closure is only recommended if there are several cases. At UCT we have, however, for a variety of reasons, decided to bring our Term 1 vacation forward and hence to suspend contact classes immediately.” 

She added that the ceremony to install the university’s chancellor scheduled for Monday 16 March has been postponed and all March graduation ceremonies have been suspended. 

Stellenbosch University announced on Sunday that lectures will continue at the university during the period of discussions between Nzimande and the vice-chancellors. 

According to the statement, the March/April graduation ceremonies and the installation of Chancellor Justice Edwin Cameron have been postponed. All conferences scheduled to be held on SU campuses in the period up to 30 June 2020 are cancelled until further notice.

The statement further explains that if the university is required to close, the Stellenbosch University Online Platform will be used to continue with the academic programme. 

The university also stated that a temporary ban has been placed on all international travel for staff and students. 

“Staff and students who are abroad at the moment will have to self-quarantine for a period of 14 days when they return.” 

Walter Sisulu University in Mthatha issued a notice on Sunday night saying that the university will carry on as usual until a decision is taken by the coronavirus rapid task team that will meet on Monday 16 March. 

“Staff and students are encouraged to seek medical attention at the first sign of symptoms. Follow the hygiene tips that were communicated previously and remain alert.” 

Spokesperson for the Nelson Mandela University in Port Elizabeth, Zandile Mbabela, said they were expecting a decision on Monday on the way forward. 

The University of Pretoria said in a statement that they are ready to take their academic programme online as soon as a decision is taken in this regard. As an extra precaution, the biometric system on campus has been disabled. 

“We have established a task team to assist with the implementation of our plan of action.

“Whilst we are busy finalising our preparation to take learning online should this be required, as things stand as of 13 March 2020, all our programmes and events are continuing as scheduled.” 

The biometric systems at the University of Johannesburg had also been disabled as of Friday, with the university saying that it has established a task team to coordinate a response. Further precautionary measures such as distributing hand sanitiser to all residences and at large gatherings were also announced on Friday. 

Professor Nana Poku, from the University of KwaZulu-Natal, said in a statement that the institution has launched a war room that will not only track any infections on campus but in the whole country and globally.  Their April graduation ceremonies have been cancelled and Poku said they were also trying to get clarity on government’s ban of gatherings of more than 100 people.

“The university will furthermore, in the incoming weeks, build capacity to keep track of all known cases globally, regionally, nationally, provincially and locally. Going forward, our team will keep a close watch on COVID-19 in South Africa, having access to dashboards and databases that will allow us to know how the spread of COVID-19 is unfolding should it approach South Africa and KwaZulu-Natal, and such information will be shared with all stakeholders.” 

A hygiene campaign was launched on campus but there has been no announcements about the closure of the institution. 

“Starting today, the University’s College of Health Sciences headed by Professor Busisiwe Ncama is instituting large-scale high level surveillance, prevention and response measures to make sure that we are ready for when COVID-19 is detected in our vicinity. The plan offers a coordinated cohesive strategy for preparedness, and will require each and every one of us to get involved. We believe that prevention is better than cure in this instance. Given the high concentration of people on our campuses – students and staff – prevention and protection against the spread of disease is critical,” the statement reads. 

Rhodes University in Makhanda has indefinitely postponed graduation ceremonies. Tests and exams will continue as usual for the time being and “technology-based alternative methods of teaching are currently being explored”. DM

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