UCT plans to open residences to students

The University of Cape Town (UCT) has said that academically vulnerable students will be among the first group of students it will allow to return to  campus when it is safe to do so. These are students who the university says might find it difficult to study remotely during the national lockdown.

The university said this group, together with medical students and those who need campus labs to complete their 2020 studies will be allowed to return first in a phased process.

In a statement on Tuesday, UCT said this had been announced by the deputy vice-chancellor for transformation and student affairs Professor Loretta Feris at an online special assembly on Thursday. 

The university said the decision to allow students back into their residences will be guided by regulations that will be announced by the government.

Feris said UCT would depend on the national, provincial and local or district-level directives that balance the health risk with the risk of the university opening. 

Last month, Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande said no campus-based activity will be allowed throughout the post-school education sector during level four of the lockdown.

“The risk[s] of a return to normal campus-based activity for thousands of students and staff are simply too great, and [universities] cannot function successfully outside of the national context of a general lockdown. Universities … do not operate in a vacuum, but in a historically specific context,” said Nzimande at the time. 

Last week, President Cyril Ramaphosa said most of the country would move to level three at the end of the month, although areas with a higher level of positive Covid-19 cases would not. 

Task team to develop criteria

UCT said it considers academically vulnerable students as those who might find it difficult to study remotely during this time. The university has established a task team that will develop the criteria for vulnerable students, because the institution said it needs to understand the different circumstances in which students find themselves that hinder them from studying remotely. 

“Once the national regulatory framework permits UCT to do so, the intention is to return these students to residence — not for face-to-face learning, but to continue remote learning in residence, with tutorial support,” reads the statement. 

UCT is one of the institutions that has been offering online learning since last month in an effort not to lose out on the academic year. Certain institutions have loaned students laptops, given them data and partnered with cellphone networks to zero-rate content for students. 

However, this approach has not been welcomed by all quarters — particularly student organisations, which have called for students to be allowed to return to campus where they will be able access unlimited internet and will also be in a conducive environment for studying.

UCT said that the department of student affairs had already identified residences for use by final-year medical students, who will be returning on campus, and that there were also screening protocols in place. The institution said these students will have a period of quarantine when they are back on campus. 

This comes after Nzimande said that only final-year medical students would be allowed to return to campuses. 

UCT said it will need to ensure that physical distancing is practised in residence. This means not all beds will be used, and the students will be screened and provided with personal protective equipment. 

Meanwhile, last week, the university announced that it had had eight cases of Covid-19, after a staff member tested positive. The university also said that six people who had tested positive for the virus since it announced its first case in March had since recovered and that there were only two active cases, both of whom were staff members. 

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Bongekile Macupe
Bongekile Macupe is an education reporter at the Mail & Guardian.

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