UCT’s equitable approach to responding to COVID-19

18 March 2020 | From Kgethi

Dear students and colleagues

This is another update on the University of Cape Town’s (UCT’s) management of the COVID-19 public health emergency. Please familiarise yourself with the details, as it is important. The more facts we have in hand and understand, the better we can adjust our behaviour and contribute to the fight against this pandemic.

I wish to emphasise our institutional approach that serves as a guideline for our decisions. The profound work we must do now is to assist to stem a dramatic swell in the infection rate of COVID-19. We must “flatten the curve”, as it is called. To do so, we must practise social distancing, which means no unnecessary close physical contact. This guiding principle underpins all the decisions of the executive. Preventing the spread of the virus is profoundly critical.

The situation we face at UCT and in the country is unprecedented and continuously changing. I appeal to all UCT staff and students to support one another, show kindness, exercise patience, practise social distancing, and continue with good hygiene practices. Please contribute in a positive way by remaining calm and by taking care of yourself (physically and mentally).

We are already seeing staff and students do the right thing, contributing in many ways and making the effort to find alternative ways of working. We recognise that many staff are working very long hours. This co-operation helps to ensure UCT remains open with work continuing remotely where possible, even though classes are suspended and residences are closing. This collaborative effort by staff and students is much appreciated. Thank you.

Please pay attention to the key current updates for your information. These relate to COVID-19 itself; the servicing of our campus and the staff who do this; taking care of all our staff; plans for teaching and learning in the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes; the research of our postgraduate students; and matters affecting international students, UCT research and support services.

The one confirmed case of COVID-19 at UCT and its management

UCT has at this stage only one confirmed positive COVID-19 case, which was announced on Sunday, 16 March 2020. The number of people that the staff member had contact with on campus is estimated at 30 or fewer. The staff member and all the UCT contacts who have been traced will remain in self-isolation for 14 days. The process is managed by the Western Cape Department of Health as per provincial and national prescribed protocols. The building where the staff member worked will remain closed. We are continuing to manage the situation and will provide updates if the status changes.

Security, cleaning and gardening services

As we all know, these services are critical to the functioning of our institution. Our colleagues in these departments often continue their important work when the rest of us are not on campus. In the context we are facing, it is profoundly important that we ensure that these colleagues are also able to practise social distancing and can protect themselves as far as possible from unnecessary exposure and contact. Hence we have made a decision to reduce the level of these services. The leadership in these areas are working with staff to establish a deployment plan that is aimed at minimising contact and lessening the risk of exposure by implementing a rotational plan. We will work to assist those with particular needs to make things safer and easier.

An equitable approach to human resources management at UCT during this period

The executive continues to adopt its equitable approach to work practices in relation to social distancing and the safety and security of staff. The workplace is being redefined to include work from home so that our staff are a) duly authorised to do such work, and b) are legally protected in terms of the relevant legislation. The use of technology and increased electronic communication will be paramount. Managers have been asked to assess and manage the requirement for additional resources where appropriate. Physical meetings will be reduced to a minimum and will be the exception rather than the rule. Virtual meetings are preferred to keep UCT’s activities functioning well. We have built our plan on two fundamental principles, namely a) staff in leadership positions must demonstrate their leadership in action in dealing with COVID-19 in extraordinary times; and b) flexibility in managerial decisions along with trust that our managers and supervisors will make balanced decisions.

We have made a call to members of the Leadership Lekgotla to submit business continuity and resource plans for each of their areas. We have also asked them to give consideration to matters of leave, travel needs of staff who need to come onto campus for specific activities and functions, the need to take care of children during school closures, the need to consider staff who are immuno-compromised and other special needs that may exist.

Further details of this approach will be provided later in a COO Desk by Dr Reno Morar, the Chief Operating Officer. Please look out for this.

Find out more about flexible working at UCT and the remote working tool kit.

Teaching and learning: going online

The Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) for Teaching and Learning, Associate Professor Lis Lange, is leading the work in this area. A Teaching Online Task Team, of which all UCT Deans are members, is compiling and analysing the needs of the different courses in order to map out how the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) in the Centre for Higher Education Development will provide support. By the end of this week there will be further details for students and academics about the online teaching plan. Professor Lange will communicate this via a DVC Desk.

Remote teaching guide and webinars for lecturers and academic support staff

The Centre for Innovation in Learning and Teaching (CILT) in the Centre for Higher Education Development (CHED) has resources to help lecturers and academic support staff to prepare online teaching and learning activities. The Remote Teaching Guide discusses how to create a plan for teaching remotely, present content, engage students in learning activities, conduct assessments and provide clear and regular communication. CILT is running a special series of webinars to present this material online, beginning on 17 March 2020. Recordings of these webinars will be available.

Issuing graduation certificates to the March 2020 qualifiers

We understand the disappointment that our students and their families feel about the suspension of the March 2020 graduation ceremonies. Please know that the decision to suspend the ceremonies was not taken lightly. We congratulate the qualifiers on their academic success. The Registrar has communicated directly with all qualifiers about the arrangements for the issue of the graduation certificates and transcripts.

Supporting students as classes are suspended and residences are closing

Classes are now suspended, as the Term 1 vacation was brought forward to start on Monday, 16 March 2020. Students have been asked to vacate the residences by today, Wednesday, 18 March 2020, and to return home. Students must continue to vacate residences as soon as possible. UCT has put immediate measures in place to support students who require assistance with vacating residences. These measures include:

  • ensuring immediate payment of allowances to all students who are on financial aid
  • working with external travel agencies on possible travel plans for students
  • working with the Department of Home Affairs in cases involving international students
  • making provision for the safe storage of students’ personal belongings.

We recognise that decisions of this nature, taken under rapidly changing and entirely unforeseeable circumstances, lead to inconvenience. The university emphasises that all decisions are taken out of recognition of the most important public health principle: to ensure containment of the disease as far as possible. The UCT executive engaged with the Student Representative Council on Monday, 16 March 2020, to discuss concerns that arose following the decision to close residences.

The decision to close residences was taken following extensive discussions with experts in the field. The residences, where large numbers of students live in close proximity, pose a high risk in terms of spreading the infection. In addition, it presents a risk of a mass outbreak and this could add enormous further strain on a health system that will be stretched to capacity in the next weeks. Keeping the residences open would not be responsible and would have added significantly to the risk of the virus spreading rapidly and contributing to the swell in the rate of infections when our actions must rather serve to flatten the curve. Furthermore, UCT is aligning with the State President’s directive restricting public gatherings of more than 100 people.

As described above, services across campus will be reduced. This is another reason to close residences. Not only do we need to reduce the potential for close contact in high-density residences, but services in many of these areas will not be available.

Students who have concerns with regard to travelling or extreme accommodation challenges are advised to send their details to these email addresses:

International students

International students face particular complexities because of international travel restrictions. We are assisting international students who face travel restrictions in their respective countries. All international students who may be facing difficulty to return home must please be in immediate contact with UCT’s International Academic Programmes Office (IAPO).

Postgraduate studies

Postgraduate students registered for taught programmes can expect their programmes to also go online where possible. This will be communicated by your respective departments. Many of our research-based postgraduate students can continue their research off campus, working from home, and are encouraged to do so with active remote guidance from their supervisors. For those whose research programmes require on-site UCT facilities, please be in touch with supervisors to discuss the matter. A number of postgraduate research students will continue to work in UCT facilities where there is low density of people and safe hygienic practises will be strictly adhered to.

The DVC for Research, Professor Sue Harrison, will release further details in a DVC Desk in this regard.

Postgraduate students are urged to study the information. Field work-based research, particularly on human subjects, is the most complex research category and we urge students involved in such work to read the DVC Desk.

All postgraduate students are encouraged to remain active in their studies in the manner appropriate for their personal and research circumstances. It is particularly important for students and supervisors to maintain good communications to enable effective supervision.

Research activities

Our aim is to maintain the functions of the university, including research, over this time. While academic staff involved in placing courses online may find little time for research currently, our research staff and postdoctoral fellows are requested to continue with their research, working from home wherever possible and limiting the use of essential UCT facilities under conditions of low people density and rigorous safe hygienic practices. Research support functions will be provided.

Sport facilities

All UCT sport events have been cancelled or postponed. Sport facilities across campus will be closed and thus no individuals or groups from outside are permitted to use these facilities.

Jammie Shuttle

A limited number of Jammie Shuttle buses will remain operational. Safe hygienic practices will be strictly adhered to. Please check the web for more information and for changes in the schedule.

UCT Libraries

The library will be closed to the public (including undergraduate and postgraduate student) as of Wednesday, 18 March 2020. Please note that entering the library will not be permitted. Library services will operate as usual online and via telephone.

Temporary closures across campus

The following UCT facilities are now closed until further notice:

  • Baxter Theatre Centre
  • UCT Educare Centre
  • UCT Visitors Centre
  • Irma Stern Museum
  • all large computer labs.

The Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation

The UCT web page on COVID-19, and other important contacts

The UCT web page on COVID-19 is updated frequently with the latest information related to the disease, UCT’s response as an institution, messages from the Vice-Chancellor and other UCT executives, and articles and news about academic responses.

Please note the following important telephone numbers

  • The National Institute for Communicable Diseases hotline: 0800 029 999
  • UCT Student Wellness Services can be contacted on 021 650 5620 or 021 650 1271 (after hours)
  • UCT staff can contact 021 650 5685

Important must-read information

Thank you for your continued commitment to UCT in this time. Let’s all continue in the national effort to defeat COVID-19.


Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng

Updates will be posted on UCT’s Coronavirus Disease 2019 feature page on the UCT News website.

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