Tuesday 12 January 2021

All staff email

Staff update Tuesday 12 January

Dear Colleagues,

We have yet again seen how unpredictable the situation facing us is. When we started back a week ago on Monday 4 January, within 24 hours we had a new national lockdown and, with that, some critical decisions to make and put into place for our Spring Term.

We were able to do so quickly and had much in place by the time we received further Department of Education guidance towards the end of last week.

The speed of our response reflects the effectiveness of our Contingency Groups, teams in Departments and Professional Services, and our Health and safety colleagues, but I am not underestimating the amount of upheaval and hard work needed to implement all of these rapid changes.

Today’s email provides a summary and some updates on more of our key decisions. I am mindful that, with rising numbers of cases and pressure on the NHS across the UK, the situation will continue to evolve at pace. New and revised guidance is likely to emerge and we will need to be ready to respond again.

I am sure that by working together, with patience, compassion and kindness, we will continue to do all that we can to deliver excellent teaching and research in the weeks and months ahead.

Return to campus:

  • In line with government guidance, I’d like to reiterate that you may only leave your home for work if you cannot reasonably work from home. We have created practical guidance for staff who need to be on campus and what this means for the use of office space, teaching spaces and bookable space during the lockdown period.

Teaching and learning:

  • Thank you for all the preparation for online teaching and learning colleagues have made for this term, and for the in-person teaching that is taking place on the limited number of courses that can currently go ahead on campus. As I shared with you last week, we made the very difficult decision that all classroom-based subjects would deliver teaching online-only for the entirety of the Spring Term. We hope to be able to provide in-person teaching for subjects requiring specialist teaching spaces (eg lab and performance spaces) later in the term if at all possible, but this will be subject to further Government guidance.

  • We have updated students about the measures we are putting in place to address the ongoing impact the pandemic may be having on their studies. We know a ‘safety net’ is a very important issue for our students and we continue to address concerns to help explain our new measures (‘a safety net by other means’) to support assessments and exams. More information is being shared with students now we have received feedback from them and their supervisors, especially around the weighting of different years in relation to our degree classifications. We have made updates to the Assessment Support package section of our Covid site to clarify further how these measures will benefit students.

Research:

  • With the support of our central Health and Safety team, we have reviewed departmental Covid-19 risk assessments and associated guidance, to help ensure we are taking into account the additional transmissibility of the new coronavirus variant. In line with Government guidance, research activity requiring specialist facilities on campus can continue, but with reduced building occupancies and new risk assessments and protocols in place. Specific approvals are needed for a limited amount of essential field work.

Covid Testing:

  • We have seen well over 2,000 covid tests booked through our own testing centre so far, and it is important that any member of staff working on campus, or visiting campus on a regular basis, takes a symptom-free rapid results test. But please remember this free testing is only one part of our approach, and cannot lead to complacency - we must also continue to follow the restrictions and safety guidelines - hands, space, face, and if you have symptoms, self-isolate and book yourself in for a lab-processed (PCR) test.

  • Thanks to our partnership with the City (which enables York residents to access our rapid results testing facilities), we have now been able to expand our hours and testing capacity on campus. This means campus-users are able to book regular tests each week. This is yet another example of how institutions across the City have come together to manage the challenges posed by Covid-19.

Supporting staff:

  • We know the national picture is extremely worrying, and that the latest national lockdown and ‘stay at home’ guidance presents new challenges in balancing work and home life, especially with many having to return to home-schooling. We understand the very significant challenges faced by parents and carers and the impacts on workload, and mental health and wellbeing. We are determined to support staff wherever possible by working with you to understand what work you are able to do, and how this might be done flexibly, and to re-prioritise activities where possible. It is therefore important that you and your line manager discuss your workload and your home commitments to see what solutions can be reached. Line managers and staff are encouraged to carry on making use of new and existing flexible working arrangements.

  • We wrote last week that colleagues in Higher Education are currently considered to be in scope as ‘critical workers’ for eligibility for school places. Further guidance may follow from the Department for Education but it is clear that schools are under immense pressure. So staff should work with their line managers to see if they can balance homeschooling with work commitments, in order to retain capacity for school places for those who have no alternative (including colleagues at the University).

Supporting students:

  • The University Executive Board has approved further support for students this term, including additional rounds of our Emergency Student Support Fund, taking total funding committed to student support to more than £3 million.

  • We have confirmed rent credits for students in University accommodation not using their rooms because of the national lockdown. Along with our Student Unions, and York St John, I have also written to our local MPs about students in private accommodation, asking for more Government support. The City of York has launched financial support for students who lose income because they are self-isolating.

  • We have funded our new Covid-19 PhD Scholarship Fund (CPSF), a package of support for PhD researchers receiving their stipend via York, and for UK self-funded PhD researchers who have been most impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic. For more information, read guidance on the application process and deadlines here.

  • Our regular ‘Tell Us’ pulse surveys of our students have given us good feedback on where we need to focus our efforts. The biggest concern in our survey just before the break was for students to have more opportunities to meet and make friends with others on their courses. So our Student Life and Opportunities Contingency Group is now working to share good practice across academic departments in deepening academic and departmental communities online. More details will follow.

I hope this is a useful summary although I recognise there is a lot of information in it. The simple message is that we will still have to operate amid great uncertainty for some time to come.

The acceleration of the vaccine programme and the approval of a third vaccine (Moderna) does though give us cause to look ahead with at least a little optimism. As we do so I am sure we will continue to be kind and patient and, above all, to look out for each other as we meet the challenges that face us.

Best wishes

Charlie