Varsities cancel graduations and travel over coronavirus fears

Students are seen in front of the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand on February 07, 2019. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)
Students are seen in front of the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand on February 07, 2019. (Photo by Gallo Images / Sowetan / Sandile Ndlovu)

Cancellations of graduations, trips and the use of fingerprint technology to access campuses are some of the urgent steps taken by universities in response to the fear of a Covid-19 coronavirus outbreak.

City Press has learnt that universities have set up committees tasked with dealing with Covid-19 on campuses and taking precautionary measures for staff, students and visitors.

A Wits medical student was quarantined on Friday morning for having been in contact with a patient who had tested positive for Covid-19.

Wits would not respond to questions about details, and spokesperson Buhle Zuma would only say late on Friday that the student had been self-quarantining at home.

“The next step will be guided by the outcome of the results,” Zuma said.

This was after the Wits management committee announced in a statement addressed to the university community that the student was being monitored closely and had not displayed any symptoms of Covid-19.

As a precautionary measure, Wits announced that the faculty of medicine had cancelled its clinical activities scheduled for the students’ class on Friday.

Other measures implemented by Wits included a ban on travel for non-essential purposes, that heads of departments had to be informed of foreign visitors arriving for conferences and that academic programmes could be delivered online if required.

In the meantime, responding to questions, Stellenbosch University spokesperson Martin Viljoen said the university had made a major announcement relating to the cancellation of upcoming graduation ceremonies.

The university announced on Friday that a decision had been made to cancel the graduation ceremonies scheduled for the week of March 31 and April 3.

“This decision, which was not taken lightly, will mitigate the risks associated with large gatherings and exposure to individuals who may have travelled internationally,” the university said in its statement.

“We realise the importance of graduation in the lives of our students and their parents, family and friends, and it is regrettable that we find ourselves in this situation,” the statement said.

Graduands will receive their qualifications in absentia, and certificates and academic records will be made available in April.

University of Cape Town (UCT) spokesperson Elijah Moholola said the university leadership had taken the decision to postpone the chancellor’s installation tomorrow and suspend March graduation ceremonies, which were scheduled to start on Thursday.

UCT also:

  • Agreed to cancel or postpone any UCT-related conferences and events until the end of June, while external service providers and event organisers were being engaged with about considering alternative options; and
  • Made the decision to suspend the approval of any university-related international travel until the end of June.

Among other measures, University of Pretoria (UP) principal and vice-chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe said staff and students who intended travelling abroad had been requested to cancel upcoming trips to countries affected by the Covid-19 outbreak.

Kupe said no new non-essential UP-sponsored international travel should be planned to any country, with exceptions which could be approved by deans.

“Members of the UP community are advised to reduce local travel as much as possible and to use technology as a first alternative,” Kupe said.

Not only do 26 universities have measures in place, but so do 50 technical and vocational education and training colleges (TVETs), according to Dr Ramneek Ahluwalia.

Ahluwalia is the chief executive officer of Higher Health, previously known as the Higher Education and Training Health, Wellness and Development Centre. It is an initiative of the higher education, science and technology department, which supports institutions in responding to the HIV/Aids pandemic through their core functions of teaching and learning, research and innovation, and community engagement.

Working with the National Institute of Communicable Diseases, Ahluwalia said they had previously engaged with universities and TVETs on precautionary measures to be taken, in January, before the first Covid-19 case was reported in the country.

These engagements were set to continue with the training of health staff in the coming weeks.

Ahluwalia said information about Covid-19 had been disseminated to these institutions of higher learning, but they would have different protocols in place to respond to it.


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