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25 May 2020

Message by Prof Francis Petersen, Rector and Vice-Chancellor

Dear Colleagues,

I hope that you are well, healthy, and safe. Since my last message to you, President Cyril Ramaphosa has announced that our country will move to Level 3 of the national lockdown on 1 June 2020. Subsequently, Dr Blade Nzimande, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, announced specific measures for the post-school education sector in response to the COVID-19 epidemic under Level 3, in order to re-integrate staff and students on campus.  

Over the past few weeks, a tremendous amount of work has been done to ensure the continuation of the Academic Project, and to prepare our campuses for the return of staff and students, ensuring that it is aligned with national directives and protocols. This was no small task. In a crisis, we have to do more than expected, and we have to go beyond the call of duty. During the past two months, I have seen and experienced many instances where multi-functional teams effectively engaged to ensure the continuity of the Academic Project, and the ongoing functioning of the university’s operations. I am immensely proud of what has been achieved so far.

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to explore and implement many innovative ways to ensure sustainability and survival. The university management followed a risk-based approach in devising a plan to continue providing tuition and academic activities to students during this time, and to complete the 2020 academic year. Over and above this, we have ensured that our campuses are ready for the return of staff and students from 1 June 2020. In our planning, a phased-in approach is followed to limit the number of staff and students present at a single location at any given time. This is in line with the national directive that a maximum of 33% of the university’s staff and student population may be allowed on campus during Level 3 of the national lockdown.

The Special Executive Group (SEG), which I chair, and which was established at the beginning of March 2020, continues to meet weekly to discuss and decide on the university’s response to COVID-19 as this pandemic develops over time. Consisting of a number of task teams, the SEG is the decision-making entity that responds rapidly, and in a coordinated manner to combat the threats to business continuity. It also identifies opportunities where the intellectual knowledge base of the university could be utilised to impact society positively.

As from 1 June 2020, all staff members – except those categories of staff specifically mentioned in the re-integration plan – will continue working from home during Level 3, until such time as they are officially informed by their line managers to return to work. However, staff members may be expected to return to work during this period if the situation so requires. Staff members must therefore be available and contactable by their line managers at all times during normal UFS working hours.

Staff members returning to campus as from 1 June 2020 will include academic staff who support and lecture our returning students, as well as support staff in specifically identified business areas. I want to assure you that your safety, health, and well-being remain our first priority when you return to campus. Teams from University Estates and other business areas have worked tirelessly over the past weeks to prepare the campuses. This includes the disinfection and deep cleaning (where necessary) of open areas and the hygienic preparation of the campuses (e.g. hand sanitisers, hand-washing stations at, for instance, entrance gates and areas with high pedestrian traffic, Perspex screens installed in high-traffic reception areas where face-to-face engagement is needed, and social distancing markers in high-traffic buildings). Similarly, lecture halls are also being prepared to ensure social/physical distancing.  

Strict access protocols will be maintained at the campus entrances during Level 3 of the national lockdown. Only staff and students authorised to return to the campuses and issued with authorisation letters will be granted access to the campuses. The wearing of masks is compulsory when entering the campuses and proof of screening must be provided. An online screening questionnaire has been designed for this purpose. These measures will help ensure that it is safe for staff and students to return to our campuses. 

Residences on the three campuses are currently being prepared to receive students. This includes the installation of hand-sanitiser stations at the entrances of buildings and maintaining social/physical distancing in the general areas. Daily screening of students in residences will be compulsory.

I am attaching a document that explains the re-integration plan for Level 3 in detail, including the arrangements for the return of staff and students to our campuses: the categories of staff and students, entry to the campus, wearing of cloth masks, social distancing, environmental hygiene, protocol for on-campus meetings, vulnerable members of staff, staff with minor children, public transport, and the management of visitors during this period. The plan will be amended as and when needed. 

It is important that you maintain regular contact with your team and fellow colleagues. Most of our staff has been working from home for more than two months, and I know you might be missing the collegiality and campus environment. I want to encourage you to be patient, to look after your physical and mental health, and to make use of the resources available from the Department of Human Resources.

COVID-19 has provided us with opportunities to rethink the world of higher education afresh, and its impact has been transformative and forced us to think beyond the pandemic.

May you have a good and restful weekend – remember to #StayAtHome.

Prof Francis Petersen
Rector and Vice-Chancellor

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