Universities will be reopening from June 1, but only final year students will be on campus with the rest learning remotely using virtual and distance education and most activity online.
By last Thursday, all universities had submitted reopening plans with the new roadmap coming from a consolidation of their suggestions.
Speaking to The Herald, Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development Minister Professor Amon Murwira said universities would reopen under World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines.
“We have agreed on a general date of June 1. This is when every university should start blended learning. In the first phase, only final year classes are expected to be receiving face-to-face learning, while others use online learning. We did this to allow social distancing on campus,” Prof Murwira said.
Other students are likely to go on campus only to write examinations.
“We have also agreed with institutions that examinations are going to be written between July and mid-August then the semester ends,” Prof Murwira said.
Large classes will have to be broken down into a group of smaller classes and universities have been asked to rework their timetables.
“We are not going to compromise on the safety of our students. Education is for the living, we gave a specific order to universities to ensure they put systems in place that will see a safe environment for students,” Prof Murwira said.
There will have to be exemptions for final year students to be able to make it back to their campuses.
“We will be working with our relevant sister ministries to ensure that the process happens in a seamless manner. If there will be waivers needed, we will respond to the need in a coordinated manner with the Ministry of Health and Child Care as well as the Ministry of Home Affairs,” Prof Murwira said.
Students welcomed the move but with caveats.
Zimbabwe Congress of Students Union (Zicosu) said Government should strictly monitor institutions for the idea to work.
“We welcome the development because Government is trying hard to make sure final years complete their studies. We are deeply worried because we know the capacity of our institutions. On their own they cannot guarantee our safety without assistance from Government,” said Zicosu President Pijiwest Nhamburo.
The Zimbabwe National Students Union believes everyone involved in the physical delivery of lectures should be tested before any activity commences on campuses.
Zinasu Secretary General Tapiwanashe Chiriga said there were prerequisites that needed to be satisfied before opening, even at a minimal level.
“Students must only be on campuses if the Government can assure the nation that institutions will adhere to WHO guidelines on prevention of the spread of Covid-19 and institutions that have been used as quarantine and isolation centres must be thoroughly disinfected,” Chiriga said.
He said there should be protective clothing for those going back on campuses.
“There must be adequate rapid test kits. Government and institutions must provide facemasks and sanitisers for staff and students.
Travelling to institutions must be guided and led by the state to minimise risk of infection on the way,” said Chiriga.
Questions were asked on how online learning will accommodate those who may not be well endowed with the hardware and data to access virtual lessons. “There must be clear cut plans on how business will be conducted in line with social distancing requirements.
“Institutions must be willing to make sure all students have data bundles before any online learning is taken seriously. The past weeks have been a disaster as many students were excluded from WhatsApp lectures as they did not have data bundles,” said Chiriga.
He added: “Institutions should be ready to accommodate all returning students inside halls of residence to avoid exploitation of students by landlords.”
In other countries most university activity has been moved online. In the United Kingdom, Cambridge University has moved all lectures to online until next year, for example, and many American universities are following a similar path.