The year 2020 has been nothing but a shock not only to South Africans but the whole world. The Covid-19 pandemic caused a disruption to the world of academia in a way we never imagined. We found ourselves having to 'lock down' our face-to-face classes and embark on a new path of online learning. This was easy for some students who were already clued up about e-Learning methods, but not to others. This was the case with the SciMathUS students. Our programme attracts students from educationally disadvantaged backgrounds and offers an opportunity to improve their NSC marks in Mathematics, Physical Sciences and Accounting. This is an intense one-year programme and operates on accelerated teaching and learning methods.
So, when suspension of classes in education institutions was announced by the Ministers of Education (DBE & DHET) SciMathUS (Science and Maths at the University of Stellenbosch) students, like all other students, had to leave campus abruptly mid-March due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Following the lockdown regulations set in place, the staff and students of this program embarked on a new path of teaching and learning called 'online' since 31 March of this year.
Although the SciMathUS students were somewhat used to working online using SUNLearn and WhatsApp groups in their respective classes, working online at home, alone, was a different story. Not only were there technical problems including connectivity, lack of data and not having access to computers, but students now found themselves in a very different environment. While there was support, focused peers and quiet time at the hostel on campus, our students now had to conform to the rules and routines of home and family life in lockdown on top of a daily routine of online classes. There was simply no question of suspending classes; the facilitators arranged a daily timetable to engage with students.
Students had to navigate these challenging circumstances while using their smart phones as a primary means to access SUNLearn and complete assignments. During these uncertain times, our students stepped up in terms of commitment, realising that they had to take their learning into their own hands more than ever. During what amounted to 13 weeks, they did not only cover academic content; the curriculum was adapted to support them and focused on life skills such as stress and time management, as well as an extensive course on study methods and techniques, equipping them for this new study environment. Students were also individually supported by one of the SciMathUS staff members, Mrs Elsje Beyers, in applying to higher education institutions for 2021. All of this took place through their smart phones. There is no way of overlooking the grit, strength and sheer resilience of these students during this difficult time. They have been astonishing.
When an opportunity was presented by government that a third of the students was allowed back into campuses, Stellenbosch University gave an opportunity to the SciMathUS students to be part of that one third. This decision was based on students once again being offered a conducive space and practical tools needed to complete their SciMathUS year. They arrived at the hostel during the weekend of 10-12 July. After 10 days of quarantine, face-to-face classes have been phased in. Although the new circumstances and protocol is something to get used to, these students are driven to finish the academic year on a high note. Both staff and students are excited and thankful for the opportunity to be back in class.