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Covid-19 grounds teaching but research to continue at SA universities

Image: Governor Tom Wolf [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Operations will come under strain as institutions adjust to a new normal

South African universities suspended lectures this week amid a surge in the number of diagnosed Covid-19 cases in the country. However, research activities can go on for the present.

Following nationwide discussions between vice-chancellors, college principals and health experts, universities suspended classes from 18 March until 15 April, when the situation will be reassessed. 

However, “some aspects of institutional activities will continue during this period”, including research, said Blade Nzimande, the minister of higher education, science and technology.

There are no immediate plans to completely shut down South Africa’s public higher education and training institutions, he said. Nevertheless, operations, teaching and learning will come under strain as the sector moves to protect staff and students. 

The Department for Higher Education and Training has issued instructions for all higher education institutions. They include a ban on international travel by staff and students unless for a “critical reason”; self-isolation of two weeks for students and staff who have travelled within the past three weeks; and banning meetings of more than 100 people.

While the department has not explicitly banned meetings and conferences, including graduation ceremonies, it is asking for their cancellation or postponement. Most universities have followed this advice.

“We are in an unprecedented situation that requires all of us to work together for our collective safety and wellbeing. I urge everyone in our sector to remain calm […] Together we can get through this period as a higher education and training community,” Nzimande said.

Universities report cases

Two universities—Witwatersrand and Cape Town—have reported Covid-19 cases in their communities. 

As a result, both Wits and UCT have brought forward their first-term recess. Both are slated to provisionally open again after the break, but they warned that this would depend on how the situation in the country played out. Both universities have given students three days to vacate residences, however some are refusing to do so.

Wits staff are encouraged to work from home but are not barred from campus for “essential work”. UCT issued a similar directive, meaning that research work can continue. Postgraduate students were advised to continue their research and work, but to work from home when possible.

The University of Johannesburg said it has set up a Covid-19 coordinating committee and cancelled classes and graduation ceremonies. “University facilities such as libraries and laboratories will remain open. Necessary measures will be implemented to minimise risk,” a UJ statement read. Postdocs and international students have been given the option to remain in residences.

Stellenbosch University said that “postgraduate programmes and research will continue until further notice.” The University of KwaZulu-Natal also said research activities will continue.

At the time of publication, South Africa’s total infections stood at 116,  of which 14 were locally acquired.