The new set of circumstances resulting from the lock-down directive by President Cyril Ramaphosa on Monday evening has increased the complexity of Stellenbosch University’s Business Continuity objective.
Further to the President’s announcement I joined the other Vice-Chancellors in an online meeting of Universities South Africa (USAf) on Tuesday to discuss the practical implications of the lockdown for each university and TVET college in our country. The Stellenbosch University (SU) Rectorate met yesterday and I would like to share the following decisions and information:
Lock-down and continuity
· The university system is committed to the completion of the 2020 academic year. SU’s overall aim is to ensure that our students should not lose an academic semester or a year.
· Due to the many uncertainties and unknowns we cannot predict what will happen to the COVID-19 trajectory over the next weeks. For that reason the higher education sector considered both the short- and medium-term scenarios and decided to make Monday 20 April 2020 the projected start of the second term. In practical terms, this implies that the SU recess for students has been extended to three weeks.
· For Stellenbosch University lock-down means that all but a few campus buildings will be inaccessible until the lock-down has been officially lifted by the President. Special arrangements will be made for essential services such as IT support and campus security. The library facilities will be closed, but an online service is available. For now, the Neelsie Student Centre will remain open due to the Post Office which is regarded as an essential service, but strict access control will be enforced. The Spar, pharmacy, ATMs and some banks will also be open for restricted business hours (08:00 – 18:00 on weekdays, and until 13:00 on Saturdays).
· During this period academic staff, as well as professional and administrative staff will continue working from home as announced before and set out in the staff protocol. Staff on compassionate leave will continue in that leave category unless they are able to work from home while attending to their affairs. Other staff have to register for leave of absence on the SUN-e-HR system.
· For staff members there will not be a recess period. Academic staff will have the opportunity to familiarise themselves with online teaching via webinars and to adapt their teaching materials to be fully online by 20 April.
· Lecturers are required to ensure a minimum presence on SUNLearn for each module. The minimum presence on SUNLearn for each module should include clear and weekly guidance to students on how they could continue with their learning. Module frameworks, links to student support structures and weekly learning material should be clearly organised on the SUNLearn module page. In addition to textbooks, learning material can be supplemented with low-tech, low bandwidth options on SUNLearn. This includes text-based notes, audio notes/narrations, data-friendly (i.e. size-reduced) PowerPoint files and formative activities that can be downloaded and completed 'offline' (e.g. exercises with guiding questions and model answers). Asynchronous (i.e. self-paced) communication channels should be set up and include both the lecturer's email address and a SUNLearn discussion forum where students can post their own questions and comments. Lecturers are encouraged to regularly use the SUNLearn announcement forum to post summarised messages to all students, in order to communicate with larger cohorts. No hand-ins or assessments may be required from students before the formal commencement of the second term on 20 April 2020.
· The March recess has been extended for an additional two weeks for students. The second term will now start on Monday 20 April 2020. As we are unsure whether contact teaching will resume on that day, SU shall be ready to implement online teaching for undergraduate, honours’ and taught masters’ students as a substitute for contact teaching and learning.
· No student assessments are envisaged before May 2020, and it is possible that the June exams may also be conducted online. As the three-week winter recess for students had to be rescheduled for March/April, it is possible that the second term could extend later into June to make up for lost teaching time. SU management will provide clarity as soon as possible.
· Students have received a survey to help SU determine their level of readiness for online learning activities, including access by means of personal devices and internet connectivity. We urge students to complete this survey by 12:00 on Monday 30 March 2020 as a matter of urgency. Online learning is a joint responsibility between the University and each student. We will ensure that the relevant platforms and learning materials are available, and will engage with mobile service providers for zero-rated data to give our students access to higher education domains. It is the responsibility of each student to arrange access to a suitable device, at least a smart phone, by 20 April.
Research and postgraduate studies
Research projects and postgraduate studies requiring any human interaction or laboratory-based analyses pose a particular challenge during the lock-down period, whilst research that can be conducted online should not be negatively affected. The Division for Research Development is paying particular attention to individual situations. Enquiries should be directed to Dr Therina Theron (firstname.lastname@example.org). The Research Position Statement distributed on Sunday has since been updated after the lockdown regulations were announced. The new version will be uploaded to the COVID-19 webpage today.
· A total of about 500 students who have had no other option, remain in University residences. The University will support these students with the minimum of services allowed by national regulation on lockdown. The same strict guidelines during the lock-down will apply at SU residences as for all South African households.
I would like to extend a sincere thank you to each and every staff member who have given full support for our endeavours to complete the 2020 academic year successfully for the benefit of our students. The feedback from the Institutional Committee for Business Continuity on the cooperation, innovation and determination among our staff members to rise to the challenge has been an inspiration. I sincerely appreciate your can-do approach to the prevailing challenges.
I do not underestimate your personal challenges and sacrifices, and concern for your loved-ones. I trust that the March salary pay-out, two days earlier (Wednesday instead of Friday), has assisted in some small way. We will continue to proactively manage the financial risks to Stellenbosch University.
We have the best intentions to keep our campus community updated, but in a rapidly changing environment this may pose a challenge. As the situation evolves, the related SU measures will have to be reconsidered and possibly adapted, but through the Institutional Committee for Business Continuity we have an agile and responsive management system. Please consult the COVID-19 webpage regularly for updates.
It is in our common interest to adhere to the lock-down measures. Please take care and look after your health.
With best wishes
Prof Wim de Villiers
Rector and Vice-Chancellor