Monday 2 November 2020

All staff and PGR email

COVID-19 update: Monday 2 November - lockdown update

Dear colleague,

We are writing to you to provide some clarity following the announcement by the Prime Minister over the weekend of new lockdown restrictions in England.

This message covers four key areas:

  • An explanation of the new rules, which we expect shortly to be supplemented with additional guidance from the Department of Education (DfE).

  • Confirmation that the new DfE Tier 2 arrangements for increased online and reduced in-person teaching we confirmed on Friday will continue.

  • The additional measures we will take with our students’ unions to support student experience and wellbeing at this challenging time.

  • Our continued engagement with the Government.

Lockdown restrictions and arrangements

As you will undoubtedly have heard over the weekend, England will be placed in a lockdown from Thursday 5 November until Wednesday 2 December.

The UK Government guidance issued makes clear that universities (and schools and colleges) are exempt from business shutdowns. This means we are in a different situation than the lockdown in Spring 2020 when all teaching and assessment and most of our research had to move online.

The new lockdown restrictions have set out the following expectations:

  • Universities should continue operations, including offering a blend of online and in-person teaching, and continuing to offer library services.

  • Students must remain in their current student accommodation and continue their education at their university.

  • Laboratories, including those involved in contributing to pandemic research, should remain open, and researchers will be able to continue their important work onsite.

In addition there are many on-campus services that we will need to continue during this period, and I am grateful to all of you who have continued to provide these essential activities for students and staff.

While the new restrictions ask people who can work at home to do so, this lockdown is different from last time - the Government guidance is clear that if your job requires you to attend work, you can, and specifically exempts universities and other educational settings from general ‘work at home if you can’ rules. That means that you are allowed to travel to the campus to carry out your roles regardless of where you live.

At York, we will be adhering to all of this guidance and we will continue to review our policies in line with any further updates and or changes in the Government’s guidance.

Rationale for continued blended learning environments

I recognise that our review of existing DfE Tier 2 plans, combined with the move to 2m physical distancing, created additional work and anxiety for many staff in the last ten days.

But we know that the majority of students want to retain a blended learning environment combining in-person and online teaching. Retaining some in-person teaching is vital not just for educational reasons but also for student mental health and wellbeing.

At the same time, we heard from students and staff that some felt uncomfortable, despite all the mitigations in place, with 1m social distancing. It is important, in these extraordinary conditions, that people feel confident in our risk mitigations. The move to 2m distancing provides additional reassurance, though of course restricts capacity.

Balancing these pressures has, I know, been difficult. I know from the work overseen by Tracy Lightfoot, the Deans, and Associate Deans for Teaching, that most Departments have already managed to find solutions; more of you are finalising the last details of your plans, and some are still working with the timetabling team and may have to have a longer transition period.

All of that work to move more teaching online while retaining some level of in-person teaching (in line with DfE ‘Tier 2’) aligns well with the new Government guidance issued so far for the current lockdown situation.

We will, of course, continue to monitor the risk mitigations that we have on campus as further guidance emerges. We now have a substantial dataset of several hundred positive COVID-19 cases in our community, none of which provide evidence of virus transmission in classroom settings. Public health partners in the City remain assured by the arrangements we have put in place to protect our staff and students.

We are therefore not proposing to make any additional changes to our Tier 2 plans following the Government’s announcement at the weekend unless additional guidance requires us to do so.

Impacts of restrictions and mitigating actions to support students

While universities across the UK have experienced surges in Covid-19 confirmed cases which also caused many other students to need to self-isolate, those numbers are now coming down across the university sector, often quite rapidly.

This is also the pattern we have seen in York and is thanks to the responsible way that students and staff have responded to the situation. We need to continue to keep each other safe.

We have issued joint communications with YUSU and GSA this morning to all students, emphasising the need to continue to keep each other safe and comply with the Government’s latest guidance, and the need for universities and students unions to work together to provide additional support to students in the lockdown period.

I am sure that you will all agree that we need to deliver the best possible experience for our students that we can, now that the resurgence of the pandemic has produced additional challenges. It puts the onus on all of us to do what we can to look after our students, many of whom are away from home for the first time, and in some cases, in a foreign country for the first time. The academic and pastoral support we can offer our students is therefore critically important alongside the support for mental health and wellbeing, and online recreational activity, that we will be providing.

There are just five weeks left to the end of term and we want to make them as rewarding and supportive for students as we possibly can, and to facilitate their being able to continue their friendships and social networks here in York.

Making our voice heard

Students across the country have endured a lot this year as their school and university education has been disrupted by COVID-19.

Against that background I deplore the narrative that has played out in some parts of the media that portrays students as irresponsible. Our daily experience of life at York shows a community of students who are creative, constructive and deeply committed to their education. We are working very hard through our mission groups - Universities UK and the Russell Group - to enhance Government understanding of the very real financial and wellbeing challenges that students are facing.

We have made clear to the Government (and will continue to do so) our belief that discussions about movement of people as we head towards the Christmas break should focus on the wider population and not just students. We are also pressing the Government to make sure effective arrangements are in place to support their return to study on campus in January.

The future success of our society is reliant on this generation and we are utterly committed to advancing a clear understanding by Government, the media and the general public about how much fortitude and patience university communities - staff and students - have shown in this past year, and continue to do so even in the face of further restrictions none of us would wish to see.

I know all of you will be as concerned as I am about ensuring that we can continue to support our students in the most effective way we can. The hard work undertaken by all Departments in the last week places us in as good a position as we can be, to ensure that our students get the best educational experience they possibly can.

Equally, I know that the introduction of new restrictions will cause further concern and stress for many of our staff. The frequency of Government shifts in policy with regard to COVID-19 management means that we have to collectively respond, at pace, to rapidly changing circumstances often determined by external factors outside our control.

We know that has an impact on people’s wellbeing so please look at our advice and support, talk to your line manager or a colleague, or seek confidential employee assistance advice via Health Assured, if you find yourself in distress.

Thank you again for all your hard work and support.

Best wishes,

Charlie

Professor Charlie Jeffery

Vice-Chancellor