BU Vice Chancellors Address-update

Dear Staff, Students, Alumni and Stakeholders of Botho University,

RE: Botho University Response to Covid-19

The COVID-19 crisis has adversely affected individuals and organisations across the globe. Our condolences and prayers go out to all those that have lost community members or been affected economically or health-wise as a result of this pandemic. The last two months have been a turbulent time with school closures and lockdowns affecting normal operations of all our physical campuses (Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Eswatini).

In mid-March, every country we operate in mandated education institutions to close. At the end of March or early April, each country went into a lockdown, and now in May, every country has started easing lockdown measures in a staged manner.

Only Lesotho has so far reopened tertiary institutions for students. During the closure, we managed to ensure continuity of learning by transitioning to online learning.

We would like to thank student representatives who worked closely with management to ensure that decisions impacting students took into account student views and were communicated widely, and of course every individual student who made the effort to make the transition.

A special thanks should also go to all our staff who have transitioned to online teaching and to working from home in a very short time.

We would like to thank sponsors for funding students, regulators for guidance and support, telecommunications providers for connectivity, and critical front-line workers who have kept us safe and healthy.

In this letter, we will try to summarise efforts made thus far in protecting our staff and students while ensuring continuity of learning and provide an overview of new procedures implemented as we reopen to a new normal.

The University’s initial efforts around information, travel, sanitisation and operational planning continue.

We continue to share trustworthy information with our University community through internal communication methods and social media.

The University has restricted all official travel since before national borders were closed and moved to video conferencing for all inter-campus work. We maintain widespread access to hand sanitisers on campus in addition to soap and water in ablution facilities.

The University has also identified and where necessary made use of professional companies for campus-wide sanitisation. Operational planning has also been critical as it allowed the University to transition quickly to online learning so that learning could continue unabated.

The University’s experience of running distance learning programmes since 2014 together with over two decades of investment in staff development and a strong technology backbone supporting administration, quality assurance, teaching and learning allowed for the transition to online learning.

Students were already enrolled on the University’s virtual learning environment, Blackboard, which is designed for an engaging online student learning experience. Blackboard also has a mobile app that provides off-line access for those with intermittent Internet access.

In some countries, telecommunications providers supported students with lower-cost access to Blackboard, but even when these were not available or came very late, most students continued to engage in online learning.

Botho University provides full-time campus-learning students with a tablet when they enrol and thus most students have a device to continue learning.

Staff continued to work from home during the lockdowns and have supported students by augmenting Blackboard with other tools such as WhatsApp and Facebook, while also developing new ingenious ways to ensure that student learning and engagement was maintained.

Special needs students have been given additional support by the Student and Alumni Affairs Department in conjunction with relevant faculty members. University support staff also continued to work from home with secure remote access to University servers. Thus, digital help desks continued to operate to assist students and other stakeholders with any queries.
Where possible, practicals have been done through virtual laboratories and other means while others will be done when students return to campus.

Assessment models were changed to work better in an online or blended learning environment without compromising on quality, rigor or learning outcomes. Despite all this support, it is an unfortunate reality that some students have been unable to study online due to genuinely insurmountable challenges; a mitigation process is in place to allow them to be supported appropriately when each campus opens to students.

It must be noted that distance learning students have continued to be supported and serviced as usual throughout the lockdown period.

In addition to continuing the core mandate of the university in teaching and learning, the University has also supported the community response to the pandemic. Cash donations of P150,000 and M100,000 were made to the government COVID-19 relief funds in Botswana and Lesotho respectively.

Given Botho University’s experience with online learning, free online training valued thus far at about P2 million was provided to teachers and students across the general and tertiary education sectors in Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia and Eswatini.

The training aimed to help these stakeholders transition to online or blended learning. The University is also working with various organisations on specific projects to support the COVID-19 effort, and in Botswana is working with an adopted village to supply food packets to the needy.

The University is also running research projects looking into areas such as COVID-19’s impact on tourism and analysing publicly available health data sets on COVID-19.

Countries are now easing lockdown restrictions with Lesotho already opening tertiary institutions to students. Botho University has reopened campuses to staff with strict protocols for campus sanitisation, entrance control such as temperature checks and compulsory sanitisation, social distancing and work from home policies. Students will also have to abide by the entrance controls and student social distancing rules on campus.

Schedules are being reworked with a reduced campus capacity to ensure that classes can operate with strict social distancing – fortunately, the vast majority of classes in the university are small and most are about 30 students or less; however, schedules are being considered to possibly reduce capacity even further if possible to keep staff and students safe.

It is envisioned that going forward in the near-term classes will be run in a blended manner, with a mix of face-to-face classes and online learning, to allow for social distancing. Details will be announced to students and staff as they are finalised in each country.

The University is committed to working with its stakeholders to ensure that learning continues in a manner that protects the health and safety of the University community and in line with respective government protocols.

Without an effective and widely available vaccine or treatment for COVID-19, the current scenario is likely to continue for a prolonged period. Botho University continues to monitor developments as the situation in every country is fluid.

We would like to urge students to continue making use of online learning opportunities even after campuses open, and urge parents, guardians and sponsors to continue supporting students as they adapt to this new normal.

Let us work together to follow the guidance provided by our Governments, the World Health Organisation and other leading experts to slow the spread of this virus for the sake of our community members, countries and the world. Anyone with any questions is welcome to contact the following email addresses for assistance:

Our sincerest thanks again to the front-line workers who are keeping the health system, public security, government and other essential services running throughout this trying time – we salute you!

We at Botho University value our wider communities’ health and safety – with integrity, excellence, inclusiveness, and our shared spirit of Botho we will get through this together.

Yours Sincerely,

Sheela Raja Ram Vice-Chancellor

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