22 April 2021
Dear colleagues and students
The Institutional Committee for Business Continuity (ICBC) of Stellenbosch University (SU) met on Wednesday 21 April 2021. We received updates from the medical advisory committee and the seven workstreams (covering student services; staff; learning and teaching; communications, social impact and external relations; campus operations; finance and legal matters; as well as research) jointly managing SU's response to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. Please read on for more details.
Risk of a third wave
We received a briefing from Prof Juliet Pulliam, Director of the DSI-NRF Centre of Excellence in Epidemiological Modelling and Analysis (SACEMA), hosted at SU. Prof Pulliam updated us on the prospects for a potential third wave of coronavirus infections in South Africa.
We can take comfort from the fact that the current number of people testing positive for the virus is relatively low. Nevertheless, there is cause for concern when one looks at the “time-varying reproduction number", referred to as R.
Epidemiologists use this number to measure the ability of a disease to spread in a population. An R-value of 1 means every person contracting a disease will on average infect one other person; and if this value rises above 1, the disease is likely to spread rapidly.
The R-value of COVID-19 in South Africa has been increasing gradually since February and is now close to 1 across all provinces. This led Prof Pulliam to warn that “there is a substantial potential for resurgence".
Colleagues and students, given the rising R value we should be very careful and redouble our efforts with safe conduct.
According to Prof Pulliam, the biggest driver of a potential third wave is risky behaviour, specifically increased close contact between people and non-adherence to health protocols. In time, people become tired of maintaining cautious behaviour and start letting their guard down. This could then lead to reduced adherence to both non-pharmaceutical interventions as well as public health and social measures to combat the disease.
This would be a mistake that we cannot afford to make. The more contact, the greater the chance of contracting the disease. That is why we must move about as little as possible and stick to our regimen of wearing a mask, keeping a safe distance from others, and washing our hands and sanitising surfaces.
Schools and universities have a particularly important role to play, because the behaviour of young people can potentially cause the pandemic to spread. For instance, a case study of the second wave in the Eastern Cape shows that it was preceded by increased infections in the younger age groups, those between 10 and 25 years old.
COVID-19 at SU
Our Campus Health Service (CHS) reports that at the moment, there is fortunately no indication of cluster outbreaks or hot spots in residences. Positive cases remain relatively low and are scattered across our campuses. In the week of 12–18 April, one staff member (out of 3 498) and 19 students (out of 31 540) tested positive.
Please note that this is not a comprehensive reflection of the COVID-19 status of all SU staff and students because we do not do any testing ourselves. These numbers were compiled from information collected by CHS on our campuses, as well as information provided by local authorities, reflecting test results from both state and private laboratories.
I want to thank everyone who has been adhering to our COVID-19 protocols these last few weeks. But I am very concerned about reports of student gatherings on our campuses and in the surrounding towns with no compliance. Such behaviour is irresponsible and pose a grave risk to our entire institution.
Firstly, COVID-19 can be fatal. And secondly, if the rate of infections rise, we know from experience that lockdowns are likely to be instituted as a precautionary measure. We value the on-campus experience highly. Therefore, to keep on enjoying it, we all have to do our bit to prevent the disease from spreading.
Let me remind our students of SU's COVID-19 code of conduct. The document will guide you in the measures we are all expected to take. The code is applicable to all SU students.
It might be inconvenient at times, but safety comes first. That is why I did not mind being prevented from entering a building on campus recently until I could show that I had the required clearance on my cellphone from Higher Health's daily risk assessment tool, HealthCheck (https://healthcheck.higherhealth.ac.za).
The ICBC expressed appreciation for our student safety ambassadors stationed at various places on campus. They can be identified by their bright green safety caps and jackets. Similarly, we are also grateful for the work done by the COVID-19 compliance officers throughout the University.
The ICBC confirmed that the wearing of a mask is mandatory – in any public space, including lecture halls. This applies not only to students but also to lecturers, even while they are presenting. A face shield is not sufficient. We understand that this might make it harder to hear them clearly but using a disposable surgical mask could help in this regard. It may not be ideal, but we must put safety first.
Academic year 2021
I am happy to report that the new Directions on a National Framework and Criteria for the Management of the 2021 Academic Year in Public and Private Higher Education Institutions were Gazetted on 29 March. The long and the short of it is that the approach that we took to bring all our students onto campus, is consistent with these directions.
The Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Learning and Teaching (DVC), Prof Deresh Ramjugernath, reported that the implementation of ARTLA (“augmented remote teaching and learning", i.e., online sessions with as much contact tuition as possible within the constraints of COVID-19) is going fairly smoothly. There were some teething problems initially, but these have largely been resolved.
Venues where students can work on campus – with WiFi so that they can access lectures being livestreamed – have been identified and communicated (click here). Students have also been referred to the interactive SU campus map, with information about where to access WiFi.
SRC Chair Xola Njengele informed the ICBC about concerns that WiFi connections were not always stable. Our colleagues from the Information Technology Division are working on the roll-out of the campus WiFi plan to improve the situation.
I have also requested faculties and support divisions to see if they could open more facilities over weekends and make these available to students.
Let me use this opportunity to wish students all the best for the first round of assessments for the year (A1). We have high expectations of you and are confident that you will succeed. But I know it is not always easy. If you need assistance, please do not hesitate to reach out to our Centre for Student Counselling and Development (call 021 808 4707 or email email@example.com).
Working and leave arrangements for staff
The DVC: Social Impact, Transformation and Personnel, Prof Nico Koopman, informed the ICBC that the flexible arrangement whereby environments decide whether staff members should continue working from home or return to the workplace based on what is required for the proper functioning of the University, including particular environments, is mostly going well. Where there are indications of unsatisfactory performance from home, staff are recalled to the workplace. (Click here for a previous communique.)
Staff members are also reminded of changes to leave arrangements, as communicated on 26 March (click here). There are a number of amendments, but note specifically that leave from the 2019 cycle not used before the end of July 2021, will be forfeited; and leave from the 2020 cycle not used before the end of December this year, will also be forfeited.
For the sake of staff health and wellbeing, we encourage colleagues and line-managers to ensure that leave is taken at appropriate times.
Colleagues and students, we are making good progress, but let us remain vigilant because the danger posed by the pandemic is by no means over. These are uncertain times, and things can change quickly. If we are not very careful, we could see a resurgence of infections, the consequence of which could be highly disruptive for the academic project and our private lives. We are managing a highly unusual situation and I am grateful for the widespread collaboration we are seeing. But we need to stay the course to complete this academic year successfully while offering our students the best possible experience and support, and also to remain sustainable as an institution.
Please take care and stay safe,
Prof Stan du Plessis