MARYKE STEYNVAART

As South Africa moves into level two of the lockdown, the question on everybody’s mind is whether students should return to campus and residences or not. The shift to level two lockdown has resulted in several restrictions being lifted, and economic activity has mostly returned to normal. However, COVID-19 still remains a prevalent and serious threat for all South Africans and students alike.

Recently, the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Dr. Blade Nzimande, announced that an additional 33% of students and staff will be allowed to return to university campuses. This means that the total percentage of students and staff being allowed to return is 66%. Rikus Delport, UP’s Director of Institutional Advancement, explains that “while the increase in numbers is welcomed, the regulations which prohibit the gathering of more than 50 people, unfortunately, mean that we remain unable to resume contact classes, so we will therefore continue with online classes for the second semester”.

Professor Brendan Girdler-Brown, an epidemiologist from UP, is of the opinion that UP’s decision is “a pragmatic approach that is to be applauded”. Prof. Girdler-Brown explains that the epidemiological principles are simple: “wash hands, limit public interaction to the essential and unavoidable, [and] wear masks. Avoid all gatherings of people and keep your distance. Do these things while waiting for a safe, effective, and available vaccine.” Hence, from an epidemiological perspective, returning to contact classes increases the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

“…unfortunately… we remain unable to resume contact classes, so we will therefore continue with online classes for the second semester

Even though many students will not be returning to campus this year, certain students will be allowed to return. Delport explains that students who require laboratory access and additional facilities will be invited to return by their respective faculties. Students who experience persistent difficulties with internet connectivity and access to internet-enabled devices will also be allowed to return. In addition, students whose home environments are not conducive to studying, and post-graduate students in their final year of study will also be prioritized.

Since the move to level two of the lockdown, several students have already returned to residences. Delport relays that UP considers the safety of students and staff a top priority, and UP has implemented several protocols to ensure the health and well-being of students and staff. These safety measures include, but are not limited to, wearing compulsory face masks, maintaining social distancing, and regularly sanitizing surfaces and hands. Delport relays that “students and staff are also required to complete a daily self-health assessment using the Higher Health Self-Assessment Tool, and screening is done at the entrances of the different campuses”.

Delport further states that additional safety measures are being taken in residences and “[UP] is closely monitoring the situation and will take the necessary steps against anyone who does not adhere to the measures and protocols”. In addition, there are no shared rooms or visitors allowed, and there is strict access control. Residences control students’ movements, and each student is screened and must wear a mask upon entry. Students are required to clean and sanitize their rooms, bathrooms, and kitchens after use, as well. Dining hall schedules have been revised and screens have been placed in IT labs to ensure social distancing measures are met. UP’s full Coronavirus policy and protocols can be accessed on the UP website via this link: https://www.up.ac.za/coronavirus-updates/article/2902480/returning-to-campus

Since the move to level two of the lockdown, several students have already returned to residences

In a non-representative PDBY survey of students regarding the return to campus, 77.5% of the 298 respondents indicated that they preferred to continue with online classes. In the survey, 86.5% of the participants rated their experience of online learning at three and above, with a median rating of four. In addition, 83% of 298 respondents indicated that their marks have improved since the start of online classes.

When students were asked to rate how much they wanted to return to campus, 61.4% of 183 respondents gave a rating of between one or two, which indicates a very low desire to return to campus.

Students voiced various reasons for their reluctance to return to campus. The most prevalent reason was the risk of contracting COVID-19 and several students reported that they had compromised immune systems themselves, or high-risk family members. In addition, many students indicated that online learning saves time in the form of traveling to and from campus. Certain students also reported that it is financially beneficial for them since they do not have to pay for food, travel costs, or rent.

Yet about 20.8% of the participants rated a four or five on the question of returning to campus, which suggests a high desire to return to campus. The most popular reason for students wanting to return to campus was to socialize with friends and fellow students. The second most popular reason for returning to campus, students reported, is for contact classes and learning, because of practical modules and technical difficulties such as internet access and load shedding.

When students were asked to rate how much they wanted to return to campus, 61.4% of 183 respondents gave a rating of between one or two, which indicates a very low desire to return to campus.

Jeana Kent, a third-year BA student, explains that “I am torn between the two sides of this debate. On one hand, I would love to see my friends again and the jacaranda-filled campus one last time (…) and on the other hand, I don’t want to get sick and possibly bring COVID home to my senior family members on weekends. I prefer the flexibility of online learning but miss the university vibe and the people in my class.”

Out of 298 respondents, 30.2% of students indicated that they have returned to their residence or private accommodation. Certain students have lived at home from the start, but an increasing number of students indicated that, due to the financial implications of COVID-19, they were forced to cancel their lease or residence placement. Hence, if contact classes were to be resumed, they would have to look for new accommodation, which might not a possibility for everyone.

From the small fraction of respondents who have returned to their residence or private accommodation, about 9.3% of students admitted that they have frequented social events, bars, restaurants, or house parties.

Several students reported their fear that some fellow students might not respect the regulations, restrictions, and protocols. Monique Muller, a second-year BSc Human Physiology, Genetics, and Psychology student, explains that “just because we are in level two does not mean that COVID-19 has disappeared. It is still out there and it only takes one person to infect hundreds, especially in a university environment. Not everyone is always going to adhere to the social distancing rules all the time, and thus makes it more of a risk to go to campus.” If a student or staff member exhibits any symptoms of COVID-19 they should report it immediately, and if the individual tests positive, they are required to isolate themselves appropriately.

Image: Cletus  Mulaudi

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