Friday 4 September 2020

All staff and PGR students email

Supporting a safe learning and working environment

Dear colleagues

With just a few weeks to go until the start of term, I am writing today with an update on what we are doing to support a safe learning and working environment for our staff and students.

Planning for the new academic year

We understand that updated official guidance for universities will soon be shared, and I will write again once we have absorbed any new information.

In the meantime, I want to reassure you that a vast amount of work has been done by our various Contingency Groups, and through the University Health, Safety and Welfare Committee, to plan for the next academic year across all aspects of university life affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, including teaching and learning, student life and recreational activity, and our research.

There is of course more to do. While we have been planning and prioritising actions throughout the summer to get us into a good position, we do not underestimate the challenges we will face next term. We will be evolving our Covid website to set out these plans and our guidance. For now, I set out some of the preparations we have been making below.

Thank you

Before I do, I want to thank colleagues who have remained on campus throughout lockdown, or who have returned more recently to continue their research or to help us prepare for the start of term.

I also want to thank those of you who continue to work from home. I know that this is not always ideal and inevitably impacts on your home life, so I am grateful for your flexibility and hard work. I know that many of you are now keen to return. Equally, I know that others are anxious about working on campus. Our key priority must be to manage our time on campus safely and that means limiting the number of people on site. We will continue to listen and build our understanding of how we can best support you all, wherever you are doing your work. Please do be in touch with your line manager to discuss any concerns you may have.

What it’s all for

I hope you can also stand back from time to time to reflect on ‘what it’s all for’. I hope in particular that you were able to watch our online graduations and to celebrate with the class of 2020. Do take a look at some of the stories our graduates have shared and, if you didn’t get the chance, you can watch the remarkable speeches by our students and our honorary graduates Nicola Benedetti, Mariana Mazzucato and Carolyn Bertozzi. And there is an extraordinary special message at the end of each ceremony from Michael Morpurgo, which I still find moving and inspirational, no matter how often I watch it.

Let me now move onto a summary of progress in preparing for the start of term:

Government guidance

We anticipate further advice from the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) imminently, and this will be supported by official government guidance for universities from the Department for Education, which is promised for next week. We will be reviewing these documents carefully over the coming days and will then share how we already align to the guidelines and/or how we will integrate new recommendations into our planning and preparation.

Changes to campus

Colleagues in Estates and Campus Services and our Covid-secure leads have been working with each Department and with Professional Services to plan staff time on campus and to understand how limited capacity - especially in our buildings - impacts on how we manage the balance of remote and onsite working.

You can see examples of the measures we are introducing to ensure physical distancing in our teaching rooms in Spring Lane and Derwent. Throughout campus, we are putting in place enhanced cleaning regimes, one-way systems, spacing markers, hundreds of hand sanitiser points, and we are maximising ventilation and the use of fresh air in buildings.

Test and Trace

We are working closely with partners across the City on how we will respond to any confirmed Covid-19 cases, and ensure individuals and their contacts self-isolate in line with public health guidelines. We have developed our data capture capabilities so we can support contact tracing, and are initiating both city-wide and on-campus scenario exercises to stress-test our plans and build the strong lines of communication we will need to respond flexibly and appropriately to the scenarios we may face in practice.

We have also been working intensively with local, regional, and national outbreak management processes to make sure that we have the Covid testing capacity on hand in York, and the quick turnaround of test results, that we will need to respond to cases among students or staff. We will update you with progress and guidance.

Setting expectations

Of course, in addition to the safety and hygiene measures in place, we need everyone to play their part in helping campus remain a safe environment for us all. What for many of us has become routine behaviour - regular hand-washing, wearing face coverings (unless exempt on health grounds), touching as few surfaces as possible, respecting others’ space - will be more important than ever to help keep our whole community safe.

Our students are, of course, a fundamental part of our community. We know that the experience they will have will be different from what they would normally expect. Some time ago we published our Together York Community Declaration which sets out how we will support our students and what we expect of them. We are supplementing this with a new Community Charter as a response to Covid-19. And we are providing a range of new covered outdoor spaces along with semi-outdoor marquees and yurts as safe locations on campus for student recreational activity. This is all aimed at setting clear expectations and responsibilities, while allowing our students to engage with each other socially in a managed setting.

Our new safety and behaviour campaign - Stay Smart, Supportive and Safe - is being designed to share new information easily so students and staff feel well-informed, to encourage us all to take collective responsibility and support each other, and to remind each other of what we need to do in following health and safety guidelines.

I should stress, though, that compliance with guidelines cannot be seen as optional or conditional. So while our primary focus will be on encouraging appropriate behaviours, we will if need be use our conduct processes to ensure that guidelines are followed.

Collective responsibility and shared purpose

Many universities will be focusing on the collective commitments and shared responsibilities of students and staff in respecting advice and guidelines. I am sure that the sense of community and shared purpose, which is a hallmark of York, will come into play here and put us in a strong position in keeping each other safe. Our collective commitment to respect, fairness and compassion is going to be more important than ever in the next few months.

I will update you next week when we have received and analysed the latest Government guidance.

Best wishes


Professor Charlie Jeffrey