[19 September] VC letter to staff and students on Level 1 arrangements

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

Dear Staff and Students

On Wednesday, 16 September 2020, President Cyril Ramaphosa addressed the nation regarding the move from national Alert Level 2 to 1. In his speech, the President emphasised the need for the country to open the economy as a result of a significant decrease in COVID-19 infections and deaths, as well as the preparedness of our health system. However, he warned us not to lower our guard as we embrace the ‘new normal’, but to keep adhering to health and safety protocols and non-pharmaceutical interventions of wearing a face mask, washing our hands regularly with soap and water or a sanitiser and practising safe physical distancing at all times.

The decline in the viral infections over the past few weeks has been achieved at a huge human and economic cost. You have played an important part in achieving this decline. Your wearing of a face mask in public, practising of safe physical distancing and adherence to the strict hygiene protocols have conveyed a visible and a powerful message of care and concern for the safety and wellbeing of those around you. So, this significant decline in the daily viral infections and fatalities linked to COVID-19 that we have achieved in our nation is tremendous credit to each and every one of us. Let us not lower our guard at this critical moment and run the risk of reversing such a significant achievement of saving lives. Let us remain ever so vigilant.

We must spare a thought for the healthcare workers who are at the frontline of our national fight against the COVID-19 pandemic. Every single day they place their own lives and those of their family members and loved ones at a huge risk as they save the lives of others. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. We honour and salute them for their heroism, dedication and selfless service to our nation and humankind. We commend them for their courage, bravery and exemplary professionalism to save lives.

It is evident that COVID-19 is here to stay for the foreseeable future and that we will need to find a way to co-exist with the virus to ensure the health and safety of our staff, students and communities and at the same time continue the academic mission and related business operations of our University.

We would like to recognise the immense contribution and sacrifices that many of our staff have made over the past six months to ensure the continuity of our academic endeavour albeit differently. A number of our staff have worked extremely hard during the lockdown period either on campus or remotely and for that we commend and salute you. Our students have also shown remarkable resilience, tenacity and conviction towards their studies amidst extremely trying circumstances.

Level 1 takes effect from midnight on Sunday, 20 September 2020. The purpose of this communique is to outline how Rhodes University will approach and manage the physical return of both staff and students to campus.

The transition to Level 1 will be guided by the regulations as promulgated by the Department of Higher Education, Science and Innovation.

Levels 4 and 5 had only essential services staff working physically on campus with the remainder of our staff working remotely, if the nature of their work enabled them to do so. During level 4, only fourth-year Pharmacy students were allowed back to do practicals and oral exams. Levels 2 and 3 saw an increase in the number of students, as well as staff returning physically to campus either on a full-time or part-time basis, particularly where they were not able to work productively on a remote basis. Many staff who were able to work productively on a remote basis continued to do so. Throughout the lockdown period, all staff have remained on full pay.

Many of the restrictions that were in place at level 2 have been eased, and there are no longer any restrictions with regards to the percentage of staff permitted physically on campus. However, we have to adhere to the 50% space occupancy rule and physical distancing of 1.5 metres for all indoor activities. This has implications for the number of staff and students we may have in various areas on campus at any given time. A protocol for the use of venues and managing of gatherings is being finalised. Observance of all national and University COVID-19 protocols remains mandatory. Compliance with curfew times, as well as quarantine or isolation requirements, is non-negotiable.

Once again students will be issued with permits to invite them back to campus, and priority will be given to international students who were unable to return earlier, and to those students who will be required to write sit-down examinations in November 2020. These students will be advised by the University of the dates on which they should plan to return. We wish to reiterate that return to campus does not mean an immediate resumption of face-to-face teaching and learning. The University will continue with remote/online teaching and learning for the foreseeable future. The University leadership and the Coronavirus Response Task Team (CVRTT) will continually monitor the progression and impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and take advice from the relevant provincial and national health authorities and health experts before any decision is taken regarding face-to-face teaching and learning.

As we transition to more physical activity on our campus, it is important to note that some of our core activities will continue mostly remotely or off-site and this will impact how and when staff transition physically to the workplace. The transition will depend largely on the type of work that needs to be done and whether this work can be done remotely or not. If work cannot be done remotely, staff, with the exception of staff who fall within the vulnerable staff category, will be required to return physically to campus. A protocol regarding how Rhodes University will manage reasonable accommodation for staff who fall within the vulnerable staff category will be circulated shortly.

Staff who are able to work productively remotely and are able to meet their performance requirements will continue to have this option available to them. Recognising that there are some activities that are difficult to execute on a remote basis, in these instances staff will be required to physically come to campus, unless they fall within the vulnerable staff categories. Deans, Heads of Department, Directors and/or Line Managers will engage their staff in terms of what is expected and required of them.

While the University will do all that is necessary to ensure a safe campus working environment, we urge staff to consider and exercise their own agency in ensuring that their workspace and place is safe in order to enable them to physically be at work as and when required, and thus to ensure the ongoing sustainability of the Institution.

In closing, President Ramaphosa spoke about a COVID-19 Alert South Africa App which we are asking all staff and students to download on their phone. The App alerts you if you have come into close contact with someone who uses the App and has tested positive for COVID-19 within the last 14 days. The effectiveness of the App depends on people downloading it. Downloading the App and receiving an alert will enable us to ensure a quicker response if staff and/or students required to quarantine, which will assist greatly with curbing the spread of the virus and saving of lives. The App has been zero-rated by mobile network operators so it can be downloaded from the Apple App Store or the Google Play Store without any data costs. The President has advised that the App is completely safe; it does not gather personal information, nor does it track anybody’s location. Please do your part in helping us curb the spread of the virus by downloading and using the App.

We look forward to further engaging with you as we navigate the future of higher education and what it will look like in the months ahead.


Yours sincerely

Sizwe Mabizela,

Vice-Chancellor, Rhodes University