Return of researchers, postdoctoral fellows and postgraduates to campus

17 June 2020 | Professor Sue Harrison

Dear research colleagues

This DVC Desk seeks to provide an update on the return of researchers, postdoctoral fellows and research-based postgraduates to research work at the University of Cape Town (UCT). This follows Vice-Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng’s VC Desk on Developing the Framework for Returning to Campus. If you have not read this announcement yet, please do so now, as it contains important principles and guidance that precede this communication.

We know that many of our researchers and postgraduates have an urgent need to return to their laboratories and studios on campus. We are in support of researchers returning to UCT with the appropriate health and safety precautions in place.  If we allow this to happen too quickly, or if we allow more people to return than can be safely accommodated in our facilities in respect of physical and social distancing, we risk having an unsafe environment.  We recognise that the community infection rates remain much higher in the Cape Town area and would not want UCT to fall into a cycle of again closing down operations and units that we have just reopened.  The possibility of closing and re-opening may well result in the likelihood that many staff and students would be unable to complete their research and teaching commitments for the year.

With COVID-19 cases in the Western Cape increasing, our hospitals and health services are under pressure. According to the most optimistic estimates about the trajectory of the pandemic in the province, we can expect the increase in infections to peak in July and August 2020.  There is also the possibility of more than one peak.  The anticipated peak in July overlaps with the earliest date we can expect to have the university ready for the return of students and staff.  Our approach is a cautious one in planning the phased return of staff and students. 

Bearing this in mind, the Return to Research Task Team – which is led by me, and composed of relevant members of the Executive, PASS departments, the Health Advisory Working Group and deputy deans for research – has decided on a set of principles and steps for the process of returning researchers and postgraduates to campus. The overarching principle is that we will keep numbers as low as we can, particularly through July and August 2020.

Each deputy dean has consulted with the heads of departments in their respective faculties to draw up a list of postgraduates who most need to return to campus. Using this list, we have assessed the numbers and have drawn up a plan to bring back staff and postgraduates to campus as safely as possible.

Please note that every staff member and postgraduate returning to campus will need a formal letter of invitation and a permit for travel. The travel permit will be issued through a central process.

We will arrange for researchers and postgraduates to return in two tranches (but this is subject to change according to national or provincial circumstances):

The first group  aligns with Phase 2 of UCT’s return to campus (Phase 1 was the return of final-year medical students), and is likely to start the beginning of July:

  • Staff and postdoctoral researchers in critical research areas that involve time-sensitive deliverables
  • Master’s and doctoral students who are reaching the end of their degrees and need access to facilities on campus such as studios, practice rooms and laboratories, and
  • Technical support staff needed to support them.

The second group aligns with Phase 3 of UCT’s return to campus (after August 2020) when we hope that the peak in the number of positive COVID-19 cases in the Western Cape is on the decline  :

  • Honours students whose courses include significant research components
  • Master’s and doctoral researchers who are not yet reaching the end of their degrees but who need access to laboratories or studios

Throughout both phases, research supervisors will be given permission to visit campus occasionally to support their students. To do so, they will need to request a letter from the Office of the Vice-Chancellor.

I want to reiterate that every staff member and postgraduate returning to campus will need a formal letter of invitation and a permit for travel. The travel permit will be issued through a central process.  You will not be allowed onto campus without this documentation

As research staff and postgraduates set up operations on campus, they need to bear the following factors in mind:

  • They may need to close down those operations quickly should there be a COVID-19 infection in the group. We are working carefully on the protocol to follow if this happens. In the instance of a single positive case, we would have to lock the affected area (such as a lab or studio or a building), rather than the whole university
  • There will be a centrally provided induction to prepare all students and staff who are returning to campus. Faculties and departments will be able to add information that speak to their needs, such as specific laboratory inductions.
  • All returning staff and researchers will be provided with personal protective equipment, including foot-operated hand sanitisers and masks. COVID-19 signage is being prepared and will be posted around the university.
  • Those already on campus doing essential COVID-related research do not need to reapply for permission.
  • Many researchers and postgraduates need to return to fieldwork and require a permit to travel to that location. We do not have clarity on the process for permits yet but are working hard to resolve this.
  • Research staff and postgraduates who wish to return to campus or fieldwork should make their request through their heads of department, who will submit these names to the health and safety committee of the faculty, the faculty executive, or the delegated approval group. Then the list will go to the Return to Research Task Team, which will keep oversight of the number of people returning to research on site, as well as equity concerns and the rigorous planning for a return to campus with minimum risk of infection.

The Return to Research Task Team will continue to meet regularly to plan further details and address the inevitable challenges as they arise. We ask all our research staff and postgraduates to work with us by thinking creatively about how to minimise early returns to campus and prevent infection, while building our important research enterprise back to full health.

Warm regards

Professor Sue Harrison
Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research and Internationalisation


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