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South African universities begin to reopen

Images (l-r): Adrian Frith [CC BY-SA 3.0], Dfmalan [CC BY 3.0], Samuella99, all via Wikimedia Commons

Amid uncertainties and risks, a staggered approach is the order of the day

Universities in South Africa are slowly reopening, but the process will unfold differently at different institutions. Some are welcoming some students back in early June, while others will wait until next month to do so. 

The Department of Higher Education and Training said on 23 May that a third of students and staff may return to campuses under level-3 lockdown regulations. Universities have been given guidance on which students may return but may also decide to bring back other student groups or staff.

Research Professional rounded up the different approaches adopted by some of the country’s most research-intensive institutions. 

The University of the Witwatersrand

Masters and doctoral students across all faculties will return on 8 June.Certain business school programmes will offer on-campus teaching and some undergraduates who need to conduct laboratory work will be allowed back. The University of the Witwatersrand announced on 29 May that staff who can work from home should do so. It said it would provide all students and staff with two face masks each. Staff members older than 60 or who have comorbidities should not return to campus. 

The University of Cape Town

Vice-chancellor Mmamokgethi Phakeng said on 29 May that UCT is still drawing up a framework for reopening, a process that will continue “over the next few weeks”. UCT staff and students will return to campus from 1 July at the earliest. Phakeng said that the university will take extra precautions because it is located in the current epicentre of the pandemic in the country. She added that less than the allocated one-third of students will return to UCT, and contact teaching will not resume. Researchers will need to wait for communication from university authorities before they return to campus.

The University of Johannesburg

The university will reopen on 17 June and will largely follow the government’s recommendations on which students should return. Vice-chancellor Tshilidzi Marwala said that students with disabilities, students in privately-owned accommodation close to campus, and certain others will be prioritised. Students will need permits to access campus. It is still unclear which staff members will be allowed to return, with older staff or those with health conditions encouraged to stay at home. “In case the return of the staff is absolutely essential, they must be equipped with personal protective equipment,” said Marwala. There will be a compulsory Covid-19 screening for everyone accessing campus.

Stellenbosch University

The institution is still preparing campuses for the return of staff and students. On 25 May vice-chancellor Wim de Villiers said they can return only if specifically told to do so. Stellenbosch has postponed all research activities not related to Covid-19.

North-West University

Vice-chancellor Dan Kgwadi said on 29 May that students who will be allowed to return—based on DHET regulations—will be notified by 5 June. They will be given two to three weeks to return. On 25 May Kgwadi said the university is working on a plan for staff.

The University of the Free State

Only staff members needed to cater for returning students will be allowed on campus, vice-chancellor Francis Petersen said on 29 May. The rest must continue to work remotely. Students will return at different dates from the first week of June to the first week of July.

The University of Pretoria

Priority will be given to students struggling to access online learning, the university said on 30 May. Not all UP plans have been finalised, but vice-chancellor Tawana Kupe said that “[we will] resume some research activities, which were postponed, and some researchers, postgraduate students and final year students needing to work in research facilities will be able to do so.” Who will return, and which research will be eligible, will be decided by faculty deans.

The University of KwaZulu-Natal

Vice-chancellor Nana Poku said on 1 June that the university is waiting for the government to gazette official regulations before it reopens. “This will inform our institutional plans for the return of our students to our campuses,” said Poku. He said he will host interactive sessions with staff to guide the reopening process.