Dear Members of Staff and Students,

These are unprecedented and deeply challenging times that we’re living in. And, none among us could have imagined, just a few weeks ago, how our lives, work and studies would be so fundamentally disrupted. We have also now learnt that blended and online learning is absolutely central to the future of learning and teaching in the 21st Century.

The COVID-19 global pandemic has brought to each one of us great uncertainty and even fear about our own psycho-physiological abilities to contend with and live through an infection of this ferocity. We’ve seen, possibly close-up, on television and in the social media, the devastating effect of this novel virus. We’re fearful for the bio-safety and health of our families, our communities, our nation, and for our wider world. And, we’re fearful about the virus’ devastating impact upon our personal and national economic and social wellbeing. When will this end, and when will a vaccine or an effective medicine become available to bring this nightmare to an end, I can imagine us asking.

I can also hear our students – from first to final years – asking deep and anguish-filled epistemological questions. What does this all mean? Where do I fit in? Should I kiss my academic year goodbye? How can I salvage things when, like water, this is slipping through my hands, and out of my reach? How can I bring certainty to my fragile and collapsing circumstance? What are my options? And, given that some universities seem to be flourishing, what is my university doing to help me pull through this deep uncertainty? As you ask these questions, I want to assure you that I and the University management are fully behind you. I am absolutely certain that we will get through this together, and that we will come out stronger.

These are indeed troubling times for each one of us. This is also the case for us in management. We are no different. I can assure each one of you – staff and students – that we are hard at work finding and building answers and solutions. Night and day. With many sleepless nights. Pondering options. Weighing these up. Discarding many. Only to start all over again. This we are doing within a troubling university setting. We have limited and mixed experience with blended and online learning when we should have explored this already a decade ago. We have constrained resources to start up and roll out at scale the means for making blended and online learning real and substantive. And so, we are wracking our brains about how to rescue our 2020 academic programme and how to create the necessary conditions for our staff and students to arrive, operate and flourish in biosafe and compassionate circumstances.

In circumstances such as these, I have always generously shared my philosophical point of departure. Which I share here as well. A crisis should not be allowed to go to waste! Indeed, crises are deep disruptions to our being and the way we have been used to doing things. These are equally opportunities to be seized for constructive disruption: to be seized for starting and building afresh, anew! In this instance, the enveloping crisis has created the possibility to catapult us into a new future in which blended learning will sit at the core of our ways of learning and teaching.

I can now share with you the initial outcomes of management’s deliberations. In respect of the working, and teaching and learning conditions, we are working closely with the Department of Health, local government and non-government organisations to implement a programme to secure our individual and collective biosafety and prevent the spread of infection. This includes the following: stringent social distancing, with a preference for work from home; regular deep-cleaning of facilities and work surfaces; provision of sanitisers, soap, paper towels, masks and gloves (where required); daily screening of staff and students; testing; provision of flu vaccines and immune-boosting supplements; isolation and quarantining (when required); and, any additional protocols as determined by the Department of Health.

In the instance of students, and given the requirement to maintain strict social distancing, the expected phased return to the University will be managed stringently, and in line with the announcements of the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology. While we are acutely aware that all our students would wish to be back on our campuses, this will simply not be practical, possible nor allowed. Subject to the announcements of the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology our plan would be, in the first instance, for our final year undergraduate students to be the first to return to our campuses. These 3,085 students are those who we expect to complete their studies and to graduate at the end of the 2020 academic year. We are still applying our minds to which group of students – for example other senior students, first years or those requiring access to laboratories – should return to our campuses in the second round.

I now turn to learning and teaching. Because of strict social distancing requirements, a significant percentage of our students – possibly as high as 50% – will not be able to return to our campuses, not at least until the end of the lockdown. This does mean that those students who are unable to return to our campuses will not to be supported to complete their academic programme through the means of online learning. We have now developed and experimented extensively with online learning, and we are most grateful to our academic staff and students who have taken on this brand-new challenge with a complex mixture of uncertainty and aplomb. We salute you! Over the course of the next month, and learning from our peer institutions, we will continuously improve our online offerings, all within acceptable standards. Keep in mind that we are walking on the stones as we cross this river. We will improve, in practice, and for as long as we remain open to learning. And, as we build towards our planned, comprehensive and collective online learning take-off on 1 June, please do participate as best as you can in our existing online learning programmes over the next five weeks. Doing so would be to your advantage.

I was most pleased to have seen the immediate, unprecedented and excellent response rate to our online questionnaire on student’s’ online learning readiness. The message coming through from our students affirm our working picture: the challenge is 80% data and 70% e-devices and laptops. We are working on both of these fronts. In respect of data we are working closely with our peers and the Department and Ministry of Higher Education, Science and Technology to extend the current limited data zero-rating offer from mobile service providers. Alert to resolving this challenge to the advantage of our students, we will keep you informed on the outcome.

Regarding the critical matter of student access to e-tablets and laptops, we are working closely with the Department of Higher Education and Training, NSFAS, SETAs, organisations who provide bursaries to our students, and existing and potential donors to mobilise the resources necessary to make up to 15,000 e-tablets and laptops available to our students. We are confident that we will be able to achieve this goal, and that these devices would be in the hands of our students by no later than 1 June. It is in these manners that we are ensuring that no student will be left behind.

I know that we are all filled with great anxiety and anticipation as we await this evening’s statement by our President on the national lockdown, and the state’s planned exit from it. We also do look forward to the subsequent statement on Friday by our Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology on plans for universities’ exit from the current lockdown. I will therefore, soon after both of these statements, provide you with a follow-up letter in which I will share further details on our own plans.

I look forward to learning about your concerns and anxieties, and also about your pointers and solutions. Please share these on either of the following email addresses: smtp@vut.ac.za or vcc@vut.ac.za

Once more, please do stay safe, wash your hands regularly in the prescribed manner with soap and/or disinfectant, and strictly observe social distancing and the provisions of the current lockdown.

With my warmest regards and best wishes,

Prof Ihron Rensburg

Administrator

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