[13 April] Message to staff and students - extended lockdown

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Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor
Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor

Dear Rhodes University Staff and Students

I write to you in the midst of an extraordinary challenge and uncertainty as nations of the world battle the COVID-19 pandemic which is wreaking havoc in our society and beyond. Today is the eighteenth of what was initially a 21-day nationwide lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19. The lockdown has been extended for a further two weeks. As at today, known cases of virus infection stand at 2173, while 25 people have succumbed to COVID-19. I hope that you and your loved ones remain safe and healthy in this global health crisis. My thoughts and prayers are with those individuals and families who are infected and/or affected by this virus. I wish them a speedy and full recovery. I am writing to you to provide you with an update on activities and plans to ensure a successful completion of the 2020 academic year.

1. Implications of the extension of the nationwide lockdown

In a televised address to the nation on 09 April 2020, the President announced that the nationwide lockdown that was due to end on 16 April 2020 would be extended for a further two weeks to the end of April. He noted progress made in slowing the rates of transmission and spread of the virus since the imposition of the nationwide lockdown on 26 March 2020. He pointed out that the struggle against the coronavirus was far from over. He warned that we were “only at the beginning of a monumental struggle that demands our every resource and our every effort.” And he cautioned that “we cannot relax. We cannot be complacent.” In so far as the University operations are concerned, there will therefore be no change. We must all respect the nationwide lockdown and abide by the rules and regulations pertaining to the lockdown. All essential services staff that had been identified and approved at the start of the lockdown will continue to provide those services.

2. Resumption of the University academic programme and online teaching and learning

In line with what has been agreed to at sectoral level, Rhodes University will gradually introduce online teaching and learning, starting on 20 April 2020. This has been preceded by four weeks of training and preparation by academics to deliver their courses and facilitate learning on online platforms. Furthermore, on 20 and 21 April 2020 students will engage in an online Orientation Programme intended to introduce them to learning online. This Orientation Programme has been developed by staff of the Centre for Higher Education Research, Teaching and Learning (CHERTL).

As mentioned in my letter of 3 April 2020, we are fully cognisant of the challenges that any switch to online teaching and learning systems might create, given the deep levels of inequality and poverty in our society. Underpinning our approach to remote/online teaching and learning will be principles of social justice and of ensuring that no student will be left behind on account of lack of an appropriate device or access to connectivity. Some of our students do not have access to the appropriate devices and/or connectivity to participate fully in an online teaching and learning platform. We have a moral obligation to ensure that no student will be disadvantaged by the delivery of teaching and learning using online systems. In this regard, an extensive survey on students’ capability to engage remote/online teaching and learning has been conducted. A detailed analysis of this survey will be available this week. Preliminary indications are that a high percentage of our students have smart devices which will be able to facilitate teaching and learning. However, issues of data availability for students and staff, as well as alternative teaching and learning strategies for students in areas with no connectivity require further attention. The Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic & Student Affairs has been working closely with Faculty Deans and academic staff to make all the necessary arrangements for the launch of online teaching and learning activities, starting on 20 April 2020. Elaborate arrangements are being made regarding a wide range of matters including assessments, practicals, clinical work, service-learning, etc., where these are an integral part of the course. Of paramount importance is the preservation of the quality and integrity of all our offerings, the overall educational experience and support of our students. We acknowledge that different courses may be at different levels of preparedness for online delivery, however all courses will make a start in the week of 20 April 2020. We also recognise that a transition from face-to-face engagement to online course delivery is more than just uploading of teaching and learning materials on an appropriate digital platform. It also requires an appropriate pedagogy that is fit for the purpose.

3. Adjustment and/or re-organisation of our academic calendar

Given the fluidity of the COVID-19 situation, it will be necessary for us to constantly review our plans. We have committed to completing the 2020 Academic Year within this calendar year. As the situation regarding the pandemic unfolds, we will continually review a number of scenarios that are informing our academic activities. Further information on how the academic calendar will be reorganised will be communicated in due course.

The weeks ahead will be testing for all of us as this pandemic worsens and more of our fellow compatriots succumb to COVID-19. We hope that our efforts, combined with those of other institutions can do much to slow the spread of the virus and avert a human catastrophe. There is as yet no vaccine for COVID-19. Scientists estimate that it may be another 12-18 months before a vaccine is developed. Health experts and epidemiologists advise that, in the circumstances, the next best strategy to mitigate the catastrophic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic is for all of us to change our behaviour. In particular, practising physical distancing and adhering to good hygiene can help curb the transmission and spread of COVID-19 and ‘flatten the curve’ of new infections. Our gratitude goes to all the courageous, dedicated and committed people who are at the frontlines of our battle against COVID-19. Every single day they expose their lives, and those of their loved ones, to the risks of contracting the virus as they render essential services aimed at saving the lives of others. The least we can do on our part to minimise their risks of infection is to adhere to the preventative measures, such as physical distancing, good hygiene and abiding by the rules and regulations relating to the nationwide lockdown. We believe that we will get through this national and global health emergency. Working together, we can and will, defeat COVID-19.

Please stay safe and healthy and play your part in flattening the curve of new infections.

Yours sincerely,

Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor & Principal.