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UCT charts slow return to ‘studios, labs’ for researchers

‘Staged’ return aims to minimise risks during expected Covid-19 peak in June, August

The University of Cape Town in South Africa will only allow researchers back to campus in stages, based on need, its deputy vice-chancellor of research and internationalisation has said. 

Writing on the UCT website on 17 June, Sue Harrison says the fact that the Western Cape province is the epicenter of the country’s coronavirus epidemic, plus the fact that infections are expected to peak in July and August, has led the university to settle for a cautious approach. 

Each department has drawn up a list of postgraduates who need to return to campus to carry out their work. Based on this list, the university will allow staff and research students to return in two stages. 

The first stage, called Phase 2 (Phase 1 was the return of last-year medical students, and is already underway), will see the return of those working in “critical research areas that involve time-sensitive deliverables” as well as late-stage masters and PhD students who need campus access to finish their degrees. This stage is likely to begin in early July, Harrison says. 

Phase 3, which is only slated for after August when infection rates in the Western Cape will hopefully be falling, will see the return of honours students who have to carry out research on campus, as well as any research-intensive masters and PhD students who weren’t allowed back in Phase 2. 

“The overarching principle is that we will keep numbers as low as we can, particularly through July and August 2020,” Harrison writes. 

She warns that returning research staff will need to be mindful of the potential need to close down their operations quickly should one of their team become infected with Covid-19. Everybody will need to wear masks on campus, and returning staff and students will require a centrally-issued letter of invitation and a travel permit to be allowed back.  

As for researchers needing to catch up on fieldwork, the university does not yet have clarity on the process of issuing permits for this, but is working to resolve that. Those wishing to return to fieldwork should notify their heads of department, Harrison says. 

She asks researchers to think creatively about ways to minimise early returns to campus, and to prevent infections. “We… would not want UCT to fall into a cycle of again closing down operations and units that we have just reopened,” she said. “The possibility of closing and re-opening may well result in the likelihood that many staff and students would be unable to complete their research and teaching commitments for the year.”