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The working, learning and teaching experience at higher education institutions in the last few months has been extraordinarily different to the way it was when staff and students left campuses on early Recess in March 2020.

Nelson Mandela University efficiently advances its return to campus plans

The working, learning and teaching experience at higher education institutions in the last few months has been extraordinarily different to the way it was when staff and students left campuses on early Recess in March 2020.

The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown restrictions have forced institutions to devise creative ways to ensure that the academic programme continues in a safe and conducive manner.  This, under the guidance of national regulations, as outlined by the Department of Higher Education and Training, Science and Innovation.

At Nelson Mandela University, planning and implementation of this new way of being and doing has been carried out through the work of institutional Coronavirus Task Team (CTT). The CTT comprises various representatives from across the University’s learning and teaching and operational support divisions, including student leaders.

The mandate of the CTT has been to focus on ensuring the preparedness for on-campus activities, as well as for remote working and learning.  Amidst the recent uncertainty, the University has devised plans around several scenarios, and implemented these to recover the academic year, while ensuring the safety and well-being of staff and students.

Learning and Teaching Methods

Following early Recess, academics worked tirelessly, planning to have students successfully complete the first term of their 2020 studies, in a different and safe, learning environment.

Due to the prevailing social inequalities, particularly in South Africa, a one-size fits all approach, in the form of blanket online learning, was not possible.  The reality is that more than 30% of Nelson Mandela University students did not have access to suitable devices and/or data connectivity.

Nevertheless, learning and teaching continued across multiple, staggered pathways that range from digital, to face-to-face contact, and a blended approach to these extremes, to enable all students to fulfil their study obligations.

Mandela University enabled students to acquire the necessary support, ensuring no student is left behind.  To this end, about 5 000 laptops have been issued to students in need.  To date, 4 803 laptops have been couriered to students across the country, with about 115 still en route.  Students also receive monthly data bundles to enable them to continue with their academic activities.

Phased Return to Campus

As we continue navigating the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become increasingly apparent that our former ways of being and doing cannot continue.  Staff and students are operating under a “new normal” and adapting to new behaviours. This includes regular health screening, physical distancing, exceptional hygiene practices and the appropriate use of personal protective equipment (PPE), such as facemasks and hand sanitisers as we are continually made aware of the necessity to learn to coexist with the virus.

In determining who is required to start physically returning to campus, the University was again guided by national regulations, with health and safety guidelines underpinning the readiness plans.


For staff, critical on-site services had been working from campus since alert Level 5, with additional categories of staff having commenced their return in line with the subsequent lower alert levels.  In accordance with national regulations, line managers identified those staff whose on-site service is required to support the gradual return to campus.

Furthermore, staff able to fully work remotely, as well as those with known comorbidities, have been encouraged to work from home, and are receiving the necessary device and data support to enable this.  To date, about 7.2% of the University’s total staff complement of about 3 000 have returned to campus, with 5.1% being of the academic staff.


For students, the physical return to campus sought to prioritise those in their final year of study, in need of access to laboratories and technical equipment, and those nearing graduation.  Students earmarked for return were individually notified, with arrangements made for acquiring the necessary permits.

While it is only notified students who are permitted to return to campus and residences, some exceptional cases have been considered.  These include students who are unable to properly carry out their academic responsibilities from home for various reasons. These requests are dealt with on an individual basis.

To date, about 29.5% of the University’s student population of about 28 000 has returned to campus.  In total, about 7 700 students were identified and notified, which is within the 33% restriction of numbers, as per the Lockdown Level 3 regulations.

The notification to return to campus is accompanied by a set of COVID-19 related conditions that students need to adhere to, upon their return, as part of the suite of safety measures. Of the notified students, 5 568 (72%) have confirmed their return and accepted the conditions.

Campus Readiness

Campuses, facilities and residences have been readied, including plans and measures related to health screening, sanitising, cleaning, physical distancing and the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE).  The University’s campuses, particularly those with the most on-campus activity, are equipped with fully kitted testing stations and health facilities.  Venues for contact sessions, including computer labs, are regularly deep cleaned and set up to ensure adherence to physical distancing and health hygiene requirements.


The students identified to return to campus include residence students, who have had to be reintegrated into residence living under COVID-19 regulations.  To date, a total of 3 219 students have returned to both the on-campus (1 274) and accredited off-campus (1 945) residences.

Appreciating the difficulty in adjusting to the new normal, the University and student leaders continue to educate and raise awareness through various campaigns, equipping students to adapt to the new normal and ensure their individual and collective safety.

University COVID-19 Statistics

As we approach the peak in COVID-19 infections nationally, more people are being infected and affected by the pandemic.  Mandela University staff and students have also been affected, and has unfortunately lost three staff members to the virus.  As at 03 August 2020, the cumulative number of positive COVID-19 staff cases stood at 72, with 58 recoveries, which leaves 11 active cases.  For students, the cumulative number of positive COVID-19 student cases stood at 10, with 7 recoveries, leaving 3 active cases.

Staff and student health services give ongoing support to all those who have tested positive.  Psychosocial support is also made available to staff and students otherwise affected by this highly volatile period, with a suite of support measures to help deal with anxiety and other wellness matters.

External COVID-19 Efforts

On a broader societal level, and in line with the University’s resolve of being in the service of society, the institution has been pooling its intellectual and other resources to contribute to the provincial efforts against the pandemic through the COVID-19 Coordinating Committee (CCC).

It is through this structure, which is divided into various work streams, that the University has been involved in the provincial and Nelson Mandela Bay Metro efforts in the fight against COVID-19.

Mandela University’s contribution includes the 3D printing and distribution of face shields to medical facilities across the province; development of critical healthcare equipment, such as intubators and ventilators, distributed to hospitals in the Metro; sanitiser production and distribution to those in need, as well as food relief to poor families in the communities surrounding it Port Elizabeth and George campuses.

Coronavirus Task Team