Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS
Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS

Institutions of higher learning — universities and technical vocational education and training (TVET) colleges, both public and private — will remain closed during level 4 of the lockdown and will only resume activities at lower levels of the government’s risk-adjusted strategy to slowly relax Covid-19 restrictions.

The level 4 lockdown starts on Friday, May 1.

All post-school education and training institutions went into early recess with all academic activities suspended on March 15 when President Cyril Ramaphosa announced the national state of disaster.

Higher education, training, science and innovation minister Blade Nzimande stressed at a media briefing on Thursday that the overriding concern in making this decision was to contain the spread of Covid-19 infections and to save the 2020 academic year, but not at the expense of saving lives. He could not give a date when institutions would open, saying that the government had to be guided by science and not submit to populist pressures.

The risks of an early return for staff and 2.5-million students are simply too great, he said. Educational institutions cannot operate outside the rules of a general lockdown — and universities and TVET colleges do not operate in a vacuum.

It was possible, the minister said, that the university academic year could be extended into early 2021 depending on the development of the pandemic. The 2021 academic year would be aligned with the plans of the department of basic education regarding the organisation of the matric examinations.

The minister suggested that the 2020 academic year could extend to as late as April 2021, though he hoped it would end in February or March.

There will be a controlled return of final-year clinical training students — mainly medical students — to assist with the health management campaign of the department of health.

Efforts are being devoted to developing flexible learning methods. Multi-modal, remote learning systems will be implemented to provide academic support at all institutions.

Nzimande assured that no student would be left behind academically in the completion of the 2020 academic year.

Negotiations are under way with the major mobile operators to provide data to students to support remote learning. Laptops with the necessary connectivity will also be provided to all National Student Financial Aid Scheme (NSFAS)-assisted students both in universities and TVET colleges when these become available.

NSFAS funding for students will continue during the lockdown and any extension of the academic year will require additional funding, Nzimande said.

Protocols for the maintenance of social-distancing, access to sanitisers and masks will be implemented when staff and students return to the universities and colleges, and they will also be screened. Quarantine sites are being identified near the institutions.

TVET colleges will also have to re-organise their academic year for 2020.

Nzimande said trainees and those in learnerships at the workplace will continue to be paid. He has extended the due date for the submission of workplace skills plans by employers from April 30 to May 31.

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