Friday 13 November 2020

All staff and PGR email

Dear Colleagues,

I am writing to you today under three headings: to share some positive news; to update you on arrangements for the Christmas break and on into January; and to stand back a little and reflect on how things have gone in the very challenging circumstances of this autumn term.

Some good news

There are three good news stories to share.

  • First, you will I’m sure have heard this week about the promising developments in the trials of a first coronavirus vaccine, which may well move into a first phase of vaccinations for the most vulnerable groups by the end of this calendar year.

  • Second, we now know that we will soon have mass Covid testing capacities both at the University and in the City of York. We will be working hard with our local partners to make these capacities a key part of our strategy to contain the virus in the coming months until a full vaccination roll-out.

  • Third, bucking the wider national trend, we have seen a significant fall in the number of Covid-positive cases in the City of York and within the University community. The first graph below shows the Covid case curve for the city of York (taken from the BBC website this morning), the second the daily data and trend curve for student cases at the University. Both, thankfully, are headed in the right direction.

A graph depicting how the case rate has changed in your area, 1 July - 8 November 2020: The light blue bars show the daily cases per 100,000 people, the dark blue line shows the seven day average.

A graph showing new positive student cases by date that self isolation was started, 3 September - 7 November 2020: The blue line shows the new reported student cases, the red line shows the rolling seven day average.

We know that the situation can change rapidly, however, so we must remain vigilant. But for now, let me thank you all for your resilience over this period and the part you have played in reducing the number of cases across our area.

Arrangements for Christmas and plans for January

You may have seen that we received news from the Government on Wednesday that students who wish to return home and spend time with their family during the holiday period will be supported to do so as safely as possible. We have created a summary of our end of term arrangements to let students know the latest, which includes a ‘travel window’ from 3-9 December.

We recognise that some students will remain on campus after the end of term, some to complete periods of self-isolation after a positive test, others who plan (or have no choice due to international travel restrictions) to stay on campus for the whole holiday period. We are developing comprehensive support for students who will remain with us on campus after the end of term.

The current expectation is that we will revert after lockdown on the 2 December to the local area Level system, with York in Level 2. We also expect that the University will continue until further notice to operate at DfE Tier 2 for teaching and learning when the Spring Term starts on Monday, 11 January 2021.

We will review our teaching when we are able to assess the trajectory of the pandemic nationally and locally, the scope and speed of any vaccination programme, and improvements in test provision. We anticipate this review a few weeks into the Spring Term.

In the meantime, I have asked Tracy Lightfoot, Pro Vice Chancellor for Teaching, Learning and Students, to work with Faculty Groups to define scenarios that would help us work towards more in-person teaching if safety judgements - in conjunction with public health advice - allow.

We await Government guidance about what it expects of universities from January onwards. We are pushing hard for early and full guidance. All we can say for now is that the Government expects students to return in January, and that it will work with us to deploy mass testing capabilities to make the return as safe as possible.

Just briefly, to share some more information about this testing: we have requested that the Government includes us in a scheme for voluntary, rapid turnaround, mass testing by the end of term (as you may have seen in our recent communications to students).

This may be in place to support student departures for the Christmas period. It is likely to be especially important in managing the safe return of students in January. Other mass testing capabilities are also set to become available with and through our NHS and City Council partners, and we will work with them to develop a bespoke City-wide test and trace strategy. We are fortunate to have a very strong public health collaboration in York, and I’d like to thank all those within and beyond the University who are playing a part in this important work to keep us all as safe as possible.

Reflections on the last few months

We are living and working through an extraordinary and difficult period. We are working with a complex community of over 20,000 people in a pandemic. We have been doing our utmost to deliver our research and teaching, and support the wider experience of our students in heavily constrained circumstances.

At the very heart of this has been a crucial balance: on the one hand keeping people as safe as possible; and on the other ensuring we do as much as we can to support the education and welfare of our students.

In striking that balance, we have followed Government advice, which is itself distilled from its own advisers, in particular SAGE and its various sub-committees. That advice has not always been as early or as full as we might have liked, but has had to be our main reference point, not least given the rapid and at times contradictory trajectories of scientific understanding of the coronavirus.

A key element has been our intensive work to mitigate risks on campus. I’d like to thank all those in our contingency groups and in particular those involved in our Health, Safety and Welfare Committee, including all of our campus unions, for their contribution to the development of our policies, protocols and approach to risk assessments, around hygiene, face coverings, physical spacing, ventilation and much more. The pace of this joint working has enabled us to develop our plans quickly and respond to changing circumstances. I would also like to thank all departmental staff who have worked tirelessly to implement arrangements locally to give confidence to our staff and students.

If we look at the hard data on Covid cases in the University community, those risk assessments and the policies we have built on them have done a good job.

We have had, to date, over 900 Covid cases, the vast majority of which have been students. Each case is discussed with the City Council’s Public Health team, and each is also followed up by our in-house track and trace team (which has had an 85% success rate, which is far higher than national Test and Trace).

So we have a very strong evidence base to understand transmission within the University community – a dataset with over 900 data points and the deep understanding of onward contacts that comes from a successful contact-tracing operation. On that basis we can report, with confidence, that we have no evidence linking positive cases to transmission in face-to-face teaching sessions. We have traced attendance carefully - looking at the standard 48 hour contact tracing window - and for the 900+ cases we have seen so far we do not have any overlapping positive cases in face-to-face teaching sessions. That is to say from the data we hold there are no examples that link two or more positive students back to the same teaching, lab or performance session.

By contrast, we have identified plenty of examples linking cases to household or community transmission. I should stress that this is real-life data. This is different from the modelling done by SAGE and others, which is based on assumptions and not evidence (and, I should say, assumptions that do not take into account the risk mitigations that we have put in place in all of our teaching settings).

All this gives us strong reassurance that the mitigation measures we have put in place, and the risk assessments that underpin them, have done their job, and that we have controlled risks around in-person teaching effectively. This is an assessment shared independent of the University by Sharon Stoltz, the Director of Public Health for the City of York, who has endorsed the continuation of in-person teaching at the University “on the basis that there is no local evidence to suggest that this is not safe”.

But we still, of course, have seen many cases in our community, especially among our students. It is a fact of the pandemic that transmission rates among young adults – in universities and more generally in our communities – are higher than in other age groups. Against that background I have been impressed by two things. First, the extraordinary commitment of our staff – academic and professional services, and those who have gone above and beyond to volunteer additional time supporting our students in difficult circumstances, especially those who have need to self-isolate.

And second, the spirit and positive attitude of our students. They have seen huge disruption since March, yet have been enormously resilient. They have recognised we cannot provide all the usual features of university life during a pandemic, and have adapted well to what we can provide. And our students’ clear preference is for blended learning which retains in-person teaching.

So I am determined that we offer as much in-person teaching as we can, recognising the benefits for both student education and wellbeing, while continuing to manage health and safety risks. I am pleased that, even as we had to reduce in-person teaching following the change of York’s local area status a few weeks ago, there was a real and widespread recognition of the importance of this in-person interaction for the wellbeing of all of our students. This is something I discussed recently with our trade union representatives, who were in agreement, including UCU, and understood therefore why we were continuing to facilitate some in-person teaching in Tier 2.

Looking ahead

As we look ahead, we should bear in mind the experience of the last months. We have managed the balance between safety on campus and the needs of our students well. This has been a team effort. While my UEB colleagues and the heads of our academic and professional service departments have played their role, colleagues across the University have had their own crucial parts in this, as have our students unions and our campus trade unions.

That collective effort and commitment is important. It is an advantage for us which we should cherish.

It is with great disappointment that I learn that our local UCU branch is seeking support from members for a motion of no-confidence in the University Executive Board and is consulting on a ballot on industrial action, with both issues focused in particular on the continuation of in-person teaching. I hope the information in this message helps put the situation into a fuller context, by outlining the local position, in terms of covid cases in our community and our dataset about the transmission of cases, and how we have managed that critical balance of safety on campus for everyone and the welfare of our students now operating in a largely digital environment. I do not think the interests of any of us will be served by conflict at this time.

This continues to be an exceptionally challenging time for all of us. I am proud of the way we have persevered and continued to support each other. We will need to continue to do so. There are many challenges still to come.

However, turning back to the good news I mentioned at the start of this message, I am hopeful that we are finally starting to turn a corner and might, as we move into the spring, see some light at the end of the tunnel.

Best wishes