Monday 4 January 2021

All staff email

Important update 4 Jan 2021 - Spring Term arrangements, new restrictions in York and testing

Dear colleagues,

Let me start the new term by wishing you a happy new year. I do hope you found some time to relax and unwind over the break. I know some colleagues needed to work over the extended period to keep the campus safe, deliver essential services to our students who remained with us in York, and prepare for the new term. Your commitment and your hard work is appreciated - thank you.

I am sure you will all join me in hoping for a brighter, healthier and better 2021 for you, your family, and your friends. We have all heard the tremendous news that a comprehensive vaccine programme will roll out over the coming weeks and months. That gives us real hope of a return to something closer to normality.

But the vaccine programme will take time to take effect. The intervening months will be difficult, not least as we come to deal with the additional challenges posed by the new Covid variant. I am sure we will do so with the same shared purpose we have shown since last spring, combining resilience with compassion.

The growth in positive Covid cases over the last month, driven by the new variant, have led the Government to issue new rules on the local area Tier system and the Department of Education to issue new guidance to universities over the past fortnight.

Starting Spring term

On 30 December, we received new guidance from the Department of Education (DfE) about students returning to campus after the festive break. The aim is to reduce numbers travelling at the beginning of term and the risk of virus transmission that moving between households brings.

The new guidance requires us to extend the staggered start to Spring Term for undergraduate and postgraduate taught students. This now means that our planned provision of blended learning will start this week, from 4 January, only for students in Medicine, Nursing and Midwifery, PGCE courses in Education, and Social Work.

All other courses will resume in online-only mode in the week commencing 18 January (following our online Common Assessment Period in the week beginning 11 January).

The DfE plans to review its guidance on 18 January, but has already indicated that the staggered return to in-person teaching for other courses will commence in the week beginning 25 January at the earliest. The Academic Contingency Group meets today to determine next steps and will be in touch with Departments to discuss the programme and cohort level implications.

To inform our community of these developments, we shared several communications on 31 December, including:

  • Briefing Senior Leaders across the University, as well as Trade Unions and Student Unions

  • Writing to all of our undergraduate and postgraduate taught students

  • Updating our new students joining us in January (following up communications we shared just before Christmas, when the Government initially announced major new restrictions in regions across England)

  • Confirming to our postgraduate research students that they are not subject to the updated guidance on returning to campus.

We will also be sharing with students the most recent letter from Michelle Donelan MP - Minister of State for Universities, which summarises the new arrangements for the start of term.

Local restrictions in York

For the time being the Government has placed the City in Level (Tier) 3, which means we are not facing the highest level of restrictions. However, with the identification of the Covid variant, we will need to continue working hard with the City and wider community to stay at this level. We have seen a worrying growth in the number of positive cases locally in the last fortnight. Local restrictions may yet need to change further.

We know from our comprehensive track and trace data that the vast majority of positive cases at the University last term arose in household and community settings, and that no cases were traceable to teaching settings. Nonetheless, we will be reviewing all of our health and safety risk assessments around in-person activities on campus to provide assurance that we are working as safely as possible in these difficult circumstances.

Education - schools, colleges and universities - continues to be exempted from general advice to work from home. The DfE guidance is clear that those providing in person teaching, offering student support, and delivering essential campus services ‘are considered essential workers … and will be able to travel to work’ (this applies whether you live in a Tier 3 or a Tier 4 area). Staff and postgraduate researchers who need to attend campus to access research facilities may also continue to do so. However, as was the case before the break, if you are able to work effectively from home, you should do so.

I recognise that the new restrictions in York and surrounding regions may once again have an impact on family routines, especially with the staggered return of schools, and I encourage you to talk to your line manager about any concerns you may have. Our aim will be, as it has since last spring, to be flexible and supportive to enable you to balance your home/personal and work commitments.

New term, new test

It is important that any member of staff who will be working on campus, or visiting campus on a regular basis, take a free rapid results test, follow self-isolation guidance should they test positive, and seek confirmation of a positive rapid results test with a laboratory-processed PCR test.

We had an excellent take-up of our rapid results testing at the end of term, and based on the feedback we received about the quick and easy process, we are running the same scheme again in our Sports Centre.

We also need your support to encourage all students to book their tests at the point they need to access teaching or other facilities on campus. This is the case whether they stayed in York over the break or are returning to York from elsewhere.

In all of our communications to students, we have set out this very clear expectation on testing, and the need to minimise social contact until negative test results have been confirmed. We have also worked hard to further enhance our package of support for those self-isolating, as well as extend our financial support for students facing hardship.

My continued appreciation

I end this email to you in the same way as I started by saying thank you. I fear that this term will be just as difficult as last term was. We may well see further changes in Government guidance at short notice, which I know can be deeply frustrating. And the current pattern of growth of positive cases around the country will be a concern to us all. But at least we do now have, with the vaccine programme, a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel to focus on as we tackle the challenges ahead.

We have proved, time and time again, that we can respond, adjust and draw on our collective strengths, giving support to one another and to our students. We will need to do so again. But I have no doubt that, despite it all, 2021 will see this community achieve remarkable new successes in our research and education, and in our contribution to the public good of our communities locally, and our society generally.

Best wishes

Charlie Jeffery

Vice-Chancellor