BY FLAVIA DAVIDS
Stellenbosch University’s (SU) Institutional Committee for Business Continuity (ICBC) has decided to focus on “academic integrity”, instead of student concerns with its decision to proceed with in-person assessments next week. This decision came after President Cyril Ramaphosa placed the country on lockdown Level 3 amidst the third wave of COVID-19.
In an email sent out on 17 June, the ICBC stated that its decision to host in-person exams is in line with the regulations of the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET). The DHET directives accommodate sit-down exams, subject to stringent COVID-19 protocols.
These protocols include mandatory mask-wearing, 1,5m social distancing and ventilation. One protocol also makes allowance for more than 50 people in an indoor venue, provided that the venue remains at 50% of its capacity. Students will also be required to screen themselves using the Health Check assessment tool.
Last week, amidst concerns over the third wave of COVID-19, the ICBC made the decision to implement the Emergency Remote Teaching, Learning and Assessment (ERTLA) strategy. This decision was made to curb the spread of the virus on campus.
In an email sent to the SU student community on Thursday 10 June, Prof Stan du Plessis, ICBC Chair, announced the suspension of all in-person lectures and tutorials. All social and sporting activities, as well as the use of study areas and computer user areas (CUAs), were suspended with immediate effect.
The email also announced that all in-person assessments would continue to be hosted by the institution as planned, with strict adherence to COVID-19 protocols. However, after a meeting between the Stellenbosch Student Representative Council (SRC) and the ICBC on 14 June, it was decided that the CUAs would be reopened.
The SRC sent out an announcement on 15 June which stated that the overwhelming majority of the student body showed no objection to the in-person tests, and that these assessments would still take place. The SRC claimed that this decision was based on surveys distributed by the Academic Affairs Council (AAC).
The AAC has no access to student emails or any other confidential information. Their surveys relied on class representatives to use polls, email requests or surveys to obtain information.
However, according to various class representatives, very few of them received any surveys from the AAC. Frankly, many representatives had no knowledge thereof.
Two class representatives noted that they did not receive official surveys to disseminate. These students, who are BA and LLB class representatives, prefer to remain anonymous.
The SRC’s claim was met with outrage by the student body. The data that was used to make the decision raised many questions among students.
Janita van Zyl, third-year BCom Industrial Psychology student and class representative, confirms that she did not receive a survey to distribute to her class. Other Industrial Psychology class representatives did not receive anything either.
Van Zyl took this claim up with the chairperson of the Industrial Psychology Society (IPS), Telisha Voges. Voges is also an EBSK Student Committee (EBSK) member. Voges maintained that the EBSK had done everything in its capacity with regard to the matter at hand. Van Zyl was told that she, in her individual capacity, could try to gauge the general mood of the students and their perspective toward in-person assessments.
Van Zyl decided to start a survey. She strongly felt that the student leaders and representatives were failing the students. The survey asked students whether they preferred online assessment or in-person assessment, and was filtered through to the student community. At the time of this article’s publication, van Zyl’s survey had 5915 responses. The overwhelming majority (84,1%) were in favour of online assessment for the upcoming exams.
When approached by Die Matie on 17 June, Jarryd Luyt, chairperson of the AAC, explained that the goal of the survey distribution was to ascertain students’ concerns. Luyt explained that the AAC were merely representing student concerns on the ICBC and Medical Advisory Council (MAC) bodies.
“The mass concern over health and safety were ultimately always at the forefront of our points raised. We were clearly told that student preference was not a factor (only the Medical Advisory Council and Legislation were). Thus, the need for petitions and widespread surveys weren’t the course we took, as that continuously led to a brick wall,” said Luyt.
At the moment, the 7 day average on new cases stands at 104 new cases per 100 000 people. Many students are stressed about contracting COVID-19 at their exam venues, considering students will be coming from all over the Westen Cape to write.
An anonymous second year LLB student raised her concern about potentially contracting COVID-19 at an exam venue and infecting her mother. Her mother, who is her only parent, has comorbidities which put her at a greater risk of contracting the virus.
The student also raised concerns about COVID-19 protocol implementations at exam venues, after these protocols were improperly implemented during one of her in-person tests. According to the student, additional students were brought in from another test venue due to a lack of space in that venue. This made it difficult to enforce proper social distance protocols.
“[The students being brought in] made me feel quite anxious, because this would not follow COVID protocol and allow us to social distance as per the guidelines. When protocols are loosely adhered to, it makes me feel more anxious to write my test. I’m worried about the test and about my safety at the same time,” said the student.
Another concern among students is that many young people are asymptomatic, and that a Higher Health check will not be able to protect anyone. This is backed up by traces of COVID-19 being found in the waste-water system of the Three Sisters residences, namely Erica, Nemesia and Serruria. This was confirmed by the residence heads, who were informed by the university’s Facilities Management Department.
Although traces of the virus have been found, no-one is known to be infected with COVID-19 in these residences as of yet.This has been confirmed by Serruria residence head, Benita van Zyl.
In their most recent email, the ICBC stated that in-person assessments could change to online assessments, during the assessment period. The ICBC reiterated that they receive constant updates of unfolding events, and that they will respond appropriately if it is required. If the ICBC makes any changes at short notice, this will be communicated to students in an efficient way.