Is this how universities will reopen? UCT's four-step guide leads the way

The University of Cape Town (UCT) has published its official plans to getting learners back in their classrooms and lecture halls over the next few months – and the guidelines may serve as a blueprint to others.

How UCT will reintroduce students during lockdown

The four-phase approach would prioritise medical students in their final year, before allowing vulnerable learners and those who need university equipment to complete their courses to return next. The eventual reintroduction of all other pupils would only take place if the first three phases are successful.

  1. Phase 1: Final-year medical students – screening protocols and teaching plans are already in place, students will return to clinical platforms (including work with Groote Schuur Hospital).

  2. Phase 2: Vulnerable students – includes those who don't have remote learning facilities, and whoever needs 'tutorial support'.[*]Phase 3: Students who need to be on campus to complete the academic year – refers to the cohort which requires labs, studios and the correct study spaces to complete practical elements of assessment.[*]Phase 4: The return of all other students to campus (circumstances permitting) – this will be guided by national directives.

Medical students set to return first

Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Transformation and Student Affairs, Professor Loretta Feris, has confirmed that measures are in place to ensure the safety of students who will be amongst the first to resume their academic activities. Feris says the district-level directives of lockdown 'will be crucial'.

"We need to ensure we can continue practicing social distancing, which means that we can't use all the beds in residences. We also need to have screening and personal protective equipment (PPE) for staff and students to return under sanitary conditions. The medical students will need to have a period of quarantine."
"All of these are necessary measures to ensure the health and safety of all us. Secondly, it is critical that UCT follows the current regulatory framework that is part of the national State of Disaster management strategy. We depend on district-level directives that balance health risks with risks of universities opening." Professor Feris

UCT model could shape approach of other universities

The UCT plan has some direct overlaps with proposals listed by Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande:

  1. Universities have been told to put remote learning classes in place and available online by June 2020.

  2. At a national level, final year medical students will be allowed back, under strict guidelines.[*]To make-up for the days lost during lockdown, the number of holidays will be reduced for June and September 2020.[*]The distribution of laptops for all NSFAS-assisted students and a plan to ensure connectivity is being finalised.[*]Nzimande stated a deal is being discussed with a telecommunications company about loading data onto each device.[*]Remote learning systems (digital, analog and physical delivery) will provide a reasonable level of academic support.

Explaining the phases

Professor Feris also explained that the socio-economic status of UCT students could be used to determine who is classed as a 'vulnerable learner':

"We need to understand what vulnerability means in reference not only to a student's ability to learn remotely because of issues such as connectivity, but also because of their socio-economic circumstances. A small task team that includes colleagues in our Learning and Teaching sector is busy developing these criteria."
"Guided by the revised academic calendar, we're working to understand who these students are, and what their numbers are, so that we can develop a plan to accommodate them. Finally, we hope that all other students will also be able to return to campus, but we will be guided by the national directives in this regard."Professor Feris