Stellenbosch University File picture: African News Agency (ANA)
Stellenbosch University File picture: African News Agency (ANA)

Stellenbosch University denies allegations of negligent Covid-19 protocols, lack of compassion

By IOL Reporter Time of article published Nov 11, 2020

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Cape Town – Stellenbosch University has refuted allegations made by a student regarding ’’negligent Covid-19 protocols’’ and the ’’general apathy’’ it has towards its students.

Due to the Covid-19 lockdown, students countrywide have faced many obstacles. Stellenbosch University was accused of a lack of compassion for its students and not being accommodating enough during a pandemic.

The student in question, who said in a letter ’’there are also other students that are also willing to attest to the information supplied’’, was aggrieved, among others, about third-year accounting students at Stellenbosch University having to write their final year-end exams at the campus without a sufficient explanation – while other third-years were able to write online.

’’The least Stellenbosch can do is try and be accommodating by making sure we stay healthy and help us make the most out of this situation that all students across the country are facing,“ the student said.

’’The stress of contracting a virus and meeting the requirements to graduate at the end of this year is overwhelming and very harmful for the well-being of students.’’

Here follows Stellenbosch University’s response:

Student: “…negligence regarding Covid-19 protocols put in place by Stellenbosch University and the general apathy Stellenbosch University has towards their students...”

Stellenbosch University: Allegations of negligence or general apathy could not be further from the truth. Stellenbosch University acted in the best interest of its students from the moment it became clear that we would not be able to complete the academic year through face-to-face learning and teaching due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The April recess was extended to give us the opportunity to switch over to fully online learning and teaching within three weeks – so that our students would lose as little academic time as possible. Our health and safety protocols are aligned with national directions and have been implemented strictly in accordance with the current risk adjustment levels.

Due to the capacity restrictions in lecture venues and in residences, SU did not bring back the full two-thirds of its student population as it could have under Level 2 restrictions, to give preference and ensure the safety of those groups of students who had to return to campus for practical sessions and laboratory work, as well as for those students who need to complete invigilated examinations as required by industry bodies. It is not currently possible to offer invigilated online assessments.

When we realised that we still had capacity in residences even after a third of the student community was invited back to campus for academic reasons under Level 3 regulations, students who had severe challenges related to studying from home – whether due to personal circumstances, connectivity issues or limited access to resources – were also invited back to residences.

The 2020 mid-year exam cycle at the end of the first semester was the first fully online assessment for most students. Although students had a first and a second exam opportunity in June/July 2020, SU decided to institute an additional A4-assessment (sit-down examinations) for first semester modules in January/February 2021. The objective is to support students to complete the 2020 academic year despite the many challenges related to the pandemic.

Student: ’’Throughout the year, third-year Bachelor of Accounting students have been writing online due to the pandemic, however, we were notified close to the end of the year that we would be writing our final year-end examinations at campus due to reasons we are not completely aware of.’’

Stellenbosch University: This is simply not true. The Faculty has been communicating with its students throughout the lockdown period via email on various topics including academic arrangements under lockdown, load shedding and emergency protocols. (The various emails are available upon request and placed on the University’s website.)

Importantly, with regard to which students will have to return to the University for sit-down exams, etc, the Faculty communicated all the necessary information on 26 June 2020 already.

Moreover, the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences recently did an online survey about emergency remote teaching during the time of COVID-19, and the responses of students – of whom a significant percentage from the School of Accountancy – were overwhelmingly positive. This can only mean that the student’s allegations are unfounded.

Student: “It was first stated that it was due to SAICA protocols, however after investigation with SAICA and other SAICA accredited degrees at different institutions this was not the case and it is up to the university whether they want their students to write in person or not” / Many students were dismayed due to the fact that many other 3rd year students at Stellenbosch University are continuing to write online. As students we are very concerned as to why we have to put ourselves and our families in this vulnerable, life-threatening situation.’’

Stellenbosch University: In terms of the SAICA requirements and the need for invigilated examinations, SAICA's position is that a university must be able to prove the integrity of the year-end assessments, particularly exit-level modules. Due to the current limitations of invigilated online assessments, the School of Accounting had to institute physical (sit-down examinations) to ensure the integrity of final-year assessments. (This was also the case at various other universities.)

Student: “...first examination at campus... protocols weren’t strictly enforced; as our temperatures weren’t checked and we only had to fill out a health survey... also no social distancing present when filling out the form...”

Stellenbosch University: Claims that the University did not enforce protocols are simply unfounded. Our students are young adults and the success of the examinations, especially in the time of COVID-19, is also dependent on the social solidarity and cooperation of all our students (wearing their mask at all times, maintaining physical distancing, sanitising their hands, not touching their face and mouth). Importantly, the COVID-19 protocols which should be adhered to during examinations were sent to all students writing physical examinations on 20 October 2020. The communication and protocols were further placed on the SU website for students’ attention.

In terms of the COVID-19 protocols adhered to during examinations, SU has the following in place: (1) Signs are placed on the walls outside venues with specific instructions for protocols to be followed outside and inside the venue. (2) There are demarcated areas outside all venues to assist with physical distancing. (3) Social distancing and masks are compulsory. This should include standing in the line while waiting for access. (4) Temperature checks are not the most accurate way to assess for COVID-19. All students are supposed to complete the HealthCheck on the Higher Health application before they can enter the venue. (5) We make use of the following 3 options for screening (as advised by Campus Health Services in consultation with Legal Services: Compliance): Higher Health Check tool: https://healthcheck.higherhealth.ac.za; Whatsapp: 0600 11 0000/; Dialling: *134*832*2#. Students who show a green Healthcheck passport are allowed entry into the building and the venue. It should be noted that the Healthcheck passport tool was devised by Higher Health, the national agency that promotes the physical and mental well-being of two million students across the country, and which continues to be instrumental in supporting universities during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Healthcheck tool is used by most universities for the screening of staff and students returning to campus daily. Information about the tool was shared in numerous student mailers even before students returned to campus. (6) Security is placed in front of the buildings to assist with student entry as well as maintaining physical distancing protocols. (7) All stakeholders are fully trained to manage and enforce our Covid-19 protocols.

Student: ’’On 5 November we discovered that one of our classmates had tested positive for the virus and when enquiring whether or not the students will be informed, we got told that it is not the examinations office’s responsibility to inform students.’’

Stellenbosch University: Campus Health Services (CHS) have been mandated with the management and contact tracing of any COVID-19-related incidents as the necessary expertise resides with them. It is important to note that any patient has the right to dignity and thus their human rights must be maintained.

The student tested positive on Saturday 7 Nov, he/she only became symptomatic on 5 Nov, the day after writing examinations, so claiming the university knew about it on the 5th is incorrect.

From there on all the relevant protocols were followed. These include the student informing the University’s Campus Health Services (CHS) as well as providing a contact list of all known contacts. All of these were phoned to determine the level of risk. All, but one, was considered as low risk according to national protocols.

Only high-risk people need to go into quarantine (the person who was classed high risk was due to contact before and after the exam where physical distancing was not maintained). As the student did not know the names of all classmates, the lecturer was requested for the seating plan, etc.

According to CHS staff, adequate physical distancing had been maintained in the venue, therefore all contacts are classed as low risk. As a courtesy however, all those who sat within a 3m radius for either exam or in the same seat on the next day, were asked to report to Campus Health if they became ill.

Student: ’’Stellenbosch University’s attitude and lack of compassion for their students is quite alarming and disheartening. Throughout this year their attitude has been one of complacency, no matter what challenge we faced i.e. not being able to upload due to load shedding or requesting more learning aids etc., they referred us to counselling or told us to find another location where there is electricity.’’

Stellenbosch University: Stellenbosch University has gone out of its way to support students in so many ways since the announcement of the lockdown in March this year. This includes an invitation to students to apply for the laptop loan scheme, monthly data bundles, improvement in the SUNLearn connectivity (very few institutions in South Africa have had to deal with this volume of simultaneous online traffic before) and alternative methods for uploading assessments if the indicated processes caused challenges during load shedding.

During assessments students received extra time (30 minutes) for uploading their work. When students in residences lost connectivity during load shedding, they were also included in the monthly data bundles.

Unfortunately load shedding is beyond the University’s control, even more so during the current circumstances where students are spread across the country with different load shedding schedules. SU has been communicating with its students consistently and regularly on an institutional level since the start of the lockdown, as well as from academic departments, faculties and the Registrar’s office.

A COVID-19 webpage was created specifically as the general source of validated and accurate information, and to have contact details and the various forms of support readily available to our students, whether academic or technical support, or health and counselling services.

Conversely, social media was used to reinforce our COVID-19 messaging, and to direct stakeholders to more comprehensive information on our dedicated webpage. COVID-19 messages, especially those relating to academic matters, have been received with great interest on SU’s social media channels.

As some students started returning to campus, CCMD launched a #backtocampus awareness campaign on social media (examples above).

IOL

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