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The implementation of COVID-19 safety measures featured prominently in student communities’ plans for the annual welcoming programme. The nature of social interaction and academic life have changed considerably since the start of the pandemic, and this year’s welcoming week, which ran from 31 January to 12 February, was no exception. Student leaders from around campus shared with Die Matie some of the ways in which safety and enjoyment were prioritised throughout the welcoming period.

According to Franco ­Swanepoel, the vice prim of Pieke Private Student Organisation (PSO), they “decided on taking a very similar route to COVID-19 compliance as in the previous year…upholding all rules and regulations to host a safe Welcoming, while still bringing the spirit and energy of all the years before”.

“Our policy is very much the same as last year, as we still want to ensure the safety of all community members, as well as the rest of the university,” continued ­Swanepoel. “We have been given more in-person active gatherings this year, as well as Vensters (Connect) in person, so we need to have more set guidelines in terms of what can and cannot happen, especially during the welcoming period.” 

He added that “concise rules regarding general daily activities” had been formulated to ensure that safety protocols were being adhered to. These rules covered aspects such as greetings and social distancing in groups.

This approach is similar to that adopted by Metanoia Residence which, according to prim Dave Binza, continued to implement the policies set out prior to Welcoming last year. According to Binza, student communities received “structured frameworks” setting out factors to be taken into consideration when planning Welcoming activities. 

“We received [a framework] for level one… and from there we [adapted] that into our own context of our community and [tried] to ensure the most safe environment possible,” he said. “We basically had to make a Welcoming programme for [alert] levels 1–5 and then … if anything were to change … we could adapt quickly and respond to that.”

According to both ­Swanepoel and Binza, basic COVID-19 precautions such as mask requirements were still the order of the day, and newcomers were regularly reminded to maintain adequate physical distance. “We will still ensure that masks [are always] worn, unless eating or drinking, and we know water will be used often in the sweltering heat, so we will be making sure that [newcomers] return their masks over their nose after they have taken a sip of water, as well as [making] sure that the students will not share their ­water bottles,” said Swanepoel.

Binza explains that Metanoia Residence appointed safety marshals to sanitise newcomers’ hands upon entry into various venues, such as the dining hall during welcoming, and to monitor the maintenance of a 1,5 m physical distance between newcomers when they collect their meals. 

“Masks are the main priority at this point in time … every now and then [mask wearing] does fall short, but we do try and rectify as much as we can,” said Binza. 

In reference to assistance provided by Stellenbosch University (SU) to facilitate a COVID-19-safe Welcoming, Binza explained, “Last year there wasn’t that much provision in my opinion, but now … the university has offered [tents] where people can sit down, and that does offer a lot of space for big groups, so it works well for us.”

Whilst questions are often raised about the impact of
COVID-19 regulations on newcomers’ enjoyment of the Welcoming experience, Swanepoel is positive that the spirit of Welcoming week remained intact, despite the need for precautionary measures. 

“Pieke has always had great energy and spirit, especially during the Welcoming period. We have organised … many fun-filled, as well as educational, activities that anyone that is new to the Stellenbosch environment can and will enjoy to [their] full extent, while also [adhering] to the rules and regulations provided,” he explained. 

“These activities take some of our favourite traditions and put a new spin on them so that they are a bit more health- and safety-conscious.”

With the Welcoming programme having drawn to a close, attention is due to shift to the impact of COVID-19 regulations on academic life in the new semester. SU made it clear in communication with students on 28 January that university management “intend [on] returning to full face-to-face mode as soon as possible”. 

Augmented remote teaching, learning and assessment (ARTLA) is set to continue for the ­duration of the first semester, and assessments “will take place in sit-down mode on campus and will be invigilated”, ­according to the aforementioned communication. It was further emphasised that venues would be “utilised to the maximum permissible capacity”.

Despite lingering uncertainty, communications by the university and student leaders would suggest that attitudes have begun to shift in favour of returning to a degree of normality, whilst fundamental precautionary measures are set to remain in place.

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