Students’ union accuses some institutions of failing to protect students

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The South African Union of Students (SAUS) has lambasted some educational institutions for failing to protect returning students. Thousands of students have gone back to campus following the Higher Education Department’s decision to allow medical students and final year students to go back to school.

The University of Witwatersrand has had 33 coronavirus cases in the last week. This is after universities opened their doors to 33% of their populations, mainly medical students and final year students. Institutions are hoping infections will not escalate but it is a reality that they might have to grapple with. Wits spokesperson, Shirona Patel, says the infections are relatively low.

“All the staff and students who have been identified as COVID positive are self isolating, we have had no cases yet of COVID-19 in any of our residences. The 23 students are out of a population of about 37 500. The statistics are still low when compared to Gauteng and national statistics,” says Patel.

The Vaal University of Technology has so far had one infection. Spokesperson Mike Khuboni says they’ve had students returning since June. Thus far, they have 3 000 students on campus and they have strict protocols in place.

“All the students when they arrived we gave them an induction program for COVID-19 protocols, they were given masks, we’ve got sanitisers at learning facilities and residences including staff as well so that is what we have done and we gave them notices in terms of how to make sure they maintain social distancing so we monitor them.”

But the South African Union of Students is not convinced that institutions are doing the best they can. The organisation has written a number of letters to the Higher Education Minister, Blade Nzimande, pleading with him to intervene particularly on behalf of medical students, who are working in hospitals without Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The organisation’s president, Misheck Mugabe, says the Minister is yet to respond two weeks later.

“Medical students who are part of those who are participating and volunteering to assist medical workers in hospitals they are complaining about no provision of transport accommodation and many other things that are supposed to support them to do in-service training and practicals in hospitals.”

In their letters to the Minister, the union has also asked him to intervene on behalf of students, who do not have PPEs and those who are forced to do clinical work, are not given enough time to prepare for assessments, have not been given e-learning equipment and NSFAS payouts as well as those that have been forced to de-register. The Higher Education Department was not immediately available to comment.