South Africa moved to an adjusted alert level one on 1 October, following an address by the President, who highlighted the reason for the move to a lower lockdown level being the decline in the average number of COVID-19 cases recorded daily. This means many social activities will be resumed and less restricted. However, the highlight was the “gatherings” numbers, which now allows a maximum of 750 people in an indoor venue capped to 50% of the venue’s capacity. What this means for students is that they might be seeing campus sooner than they expected.
There has been no official statement by the Department of Higher Education and Training, or from Minister Dr Blade Nzimande to this regard. This can be accredited to the fact that higher education institutions are allowed to implement their own risk-free strategies of allowing students back on campus. However, in his statement last year when the country was under the same adjusted alert level, Dr Nzimande said, “following the President’s announcement that the country would move to Level 1, I am pleased to say that we are now in a position to welcome back 100% of our university students, including all those international students who are currently outside the borders of South Africa”. With the vaccine rollout proving to be a success in the country, this may be an approaching reality.
While mandatory vaccine programmes are being discussed nationwide, UP has not implemented mandatory vaccines. The UP executive released an announcement regarding the university’s position on vaccines and the return to campus in 2022. The
response from the executive explains that UP is “committed to reopening its campuses in 2022”, dependent on the progression of the pandemic and government regulations. Some on campus activities have already resumed for “some programmes [such as for] final year students, selected courses with laboratory- and field practicals and other priority courses”. UP aims to have all students begin on campus in 2022 and is “currently doing a risk assessment for the safe return of students and staff”. They also “strongly urge everyone who is not yet fully vaccinated to do so. It is not only the right decision for every individual’s health but also important for the collective health of everyone”.
While vaccinations are not mandatory for UP staff and students, everyone is strongly urged to get vaccinated. UP adds that the
executive “might change our approach [to mandatory vaccinations] should it become necessary to ensure the health and safety of UP students and staff. We strongly believe in the benefits of being vaccinated and the role it can play in preventing people from falling seriously ill or dying”. Prof. Tawana Kupe hinted to the prospect of returning to campus in an email sent to students on 6 October. He said “With the move to risk-adjusted level 1, the university will make certain adjustments in line with the plans that were developed by each of the faculties and professional service departments”.
While vaccines are voluntary, UP also notes the need for high vaccination levels, as “owing to the evolution and mutation of the virus, the threshold for reaching herd immunity keeps on rising”. The university will continue to consult with and be guided by “the health experts and authorities” and adds that “ the more people that are vaccinated, the safer it will be for us as a community to return to some form of normality.”
Photo: Ruth Versfeld