Higher education minister Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS
Higher education minister Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS

The government has set up a multidisciplinary investigation team to deal with Covid-19 outbreaks at institutions of higher learning after more than 600 students and staff tested positive for the virus.

Higher education minister Blade Nzimande on Thursday said the team, which  included members of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the health department and the National Health Laboratory Service (NHLS), was expected to help manage and contain the outbreaks at the institutions.

It would do so via the early identification of infected students and staff, their contacts and helping with early isolation and quarantine.

He said the government had  successfully negotiated with the NHLS to reduce the confirmation time for results. “Contacts have also been isolated and given the necessary support,” said Nzimande.

The Walter Sisulu University was the latest institution to be hit by an outbreak. On Wednesday, it announced that classes would be held virtually.

“In the past few days, after the trend across the province, we have experienced outbreaks of Covid-19 on all our campuses. Most of these cases originate elsewhere and then get transmitted to students and staff during academic activity.

“In the interest of occupational health and safety and to minimise risk of infection I hereby suspend all face-to-face academic activity  with immediate effect until further notice,” said vice-chancellor and principal Prof Rob Midgley.

Nzimande said he was confident most institution would be able to contain future outbreaks. He urged students to continue with health and safety protocols.

“We do anticipate more cluster outbreaks, across other provinces and institutions and I appeal to students and staff to stick to preventive measures — including wearing of masks, proper hand washing, avoiding handshaking and social and physical distancing,” he said.

“We have been closely monitoring the situation across all universities, and I am pleased to say that as of November 13 the vast majority of institutions (25) are at 'low risk' of not completing the academic year,” said Nzimande.

“I want to assure South Africans that all our universities are fully committed to complete the 2020 academic year by mid-March 2021. Twenty-five universities are set to start the 2021 academic year at end of March 2021 and one university in April,” said Nzimande.

He said the dates were in line with the expected release of the National Senior Certificate results on February 23 2021.

“Despite the crisis that Covid-19 caused, valuable lessons have been learnt. We have again been starkly reminded of the high levels of inequality that prevail in SA generally, as well as in higher education,” he said.

Nzimande said he had written to all university councils with a proposal for a CPI-linked fee increase for 2021.

“This would be 4.7% on tuition fees and 6.7% on accommodation fees, in line with previous years. I am awaiting the response of university councils on this matter,” he said.

He also released directions in the government gazette to provide a framework for tuition and accommodation fees in the university sector for the 2020 academic year.

These include, but are not limited to, students who are staying in university owned, managed or leased accommodation, who will not have to pay any additional accommodation fees.

Nzimande, however, said he was aware there could be additional costs for students in private accommodation.

“In this regard, we urge all private accommodation providers to work within this national framework as provided within this government gazette and I request that, wherever possible, universities assist students in negotiating with private providers on this matter.

“I urge that we all work together to find the best possible solution of supporting our students to effectively complete the academic year, within the budgetary constraints we face as a country and within our sector.”

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