/ 16 March 2020

Government’s plan for universities and schools – the story so far

Minister Ndzimande 1251 Dv
Higher education, science and innovation minister Blade Nzimande. (Delwyn Verasamy/M&G)

Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande has called on all tertiary institutions to immediately suspend all contact lecturers as the country deals with the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Nzimande made the announcement at the ministerial briefing in Pretoria where an inter-ministerial task team held an information briefing on Sunday after President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement of a national disaster and plans to deal  with the coronavirus. 

A number of universities had already suspended classes and tests. 

Vice-chancellor Nana Poku announced on Sunday evening that the University of KwaZulu-Natal had suspended the academic programme with immediate effect until further notice. The April graduation ceremonies were also cancelled. 

The University of Cape Town, which also has a positive case of Covid-19, announced on Sunday evening that it had suspended lectures and ended the first term immediately rather than waiting until Saturday. The university is yet to confirm when the second term, which was to have started on March 30, will commence. 

All students were instructed to vacate the residences within 72 hours. But this move was rejected by the student representative council (SRC). The student body encouraged students to occupy their residences and not leave.

“It cannot be that at this time of the month students are expected to book buses and flights home. It is an elitist, anti-black move that affects more than it assists,” the SRC said in a statement. 

Also on Sunday, Rhodes University announced it had suspended all its academic activities until further notice. 

North West University said classes will continue pending the outcome of the discussions with Nzimande and vice-chancellors. 

On Monday, the University of Pretoria said it has postponed all tests and assessments and was in the process of finalising plans on contact activities. 

The University of Limpopo also announced on Monday that it had suspended its academic activities until further notice, and that students were expected to vacate residences by Tuesday afternoon.

The University of Zululand said all academic activities have been suspended until further notice and that the Easter break, which was to have started on March 23, will now begin on Tuesday and that a re-opening date will be announced in due course. 

The university said students at the Richards Bay campus should vacate their rooms or self-isolate in their rooms to curb the spread of the virus. 

Nelson Mandela University also announced that it will be suspending its academic activities and has postponed graduation until further notice. The university also said that it will use online or virtual learning, and other alternative platforms until after the Easter weekend. 

Stellenbosch university has also suspended its academic activities until further notice. Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said she will formally give notice of the change of the school calendar. This is after Ramaphosa announced that schools will close on March 18, instead of March 20. The opening date was to have been March 31, but this has changed to April 14.

Nzimande said he was aware that events on the ground were moving fast and that various institutions had taken matters into their own hands. He will meet universities’ leaders on Tuesday to look at a comprehensive plan. 

“But let me highlight what we’ve agreed upon in the light of what the president had said … we are encouraging that all institutions should immediately suspend all contact lectures, as well as minimise contact among students,” said Nzimande. 

“But we are not as yet planning a  shutdown, because there are pros and cons to actually shutting down the institution completely. Where do you take the students moving them out of the residence and how do we deal with that? That’s a matter that we’ll discuss tomorrow [Tuesday] as to whether the situation does warrant the shutting down.”

Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga said she will formally give notice of the change of the school calendar. This is after Ramaphosa announced that schools will on March 18, instead of March 20. The opening date was to have been March 31, but this has changed to  April 14. 

She said it was agreed at a meeting on Monday morning with education MECs that the June and September holidays will be shortened to make up for the lost 10 days. 

Motshekga said heads of departments are yet to meet to discuss other ways of dealing with the closure of schools and by Wednesday a more comprehensive plan will be announced. 

“We’ve also sent notice to schools that they should, as I say, take take advantage of the long break than anticipated that schools must give children more worksheets to work with families, to give them their books … So those are the arrangements which are done school by school to make sure that children go home with  lots of work at home and we appeal to communities and homes to assist them.”

She added that if this school holiday goes beyond 10 days the year might be extended by a week to make sure that the curriculum is covered. 

The Mail & Guardian reported on Sunday evening that teacher unions have welcomed the closure of schools for the safety of children and teachers. 

Motshekga said this was a national disaster and “we are expecting everybody to step up. The disaster is for all of us and parents have to participate.” 

“There is no way we can take care of 12 million kids outside the education system infrastructure and therefore we rely on communities and parents in particular to step in and make sure that they work with social development and everybody else … But we are not going to do anything different outside of what we normally do; we are not going to have special programmes; we are not going to run feeding schemes. We have accessed our capacity and we will not be able to do it.”