Tuesday 5 January 2021

All staff email

Important update 5 Jan 2021 : Latest UK restrictions and national lockdown

Dear colleagues,

I know you will be very disheartened by the latest Government announcement about the new lockdown restrictions in England, and the additional uncertainty this creates for the coming weeks.

We have considered the immediate issues at our University Executive Board meeting today, and our various Contingency Groups will be working through the details about what the lockdown restrictions mean for research activities, teaching and learning, and the wellbeing of staff and students.

We recognise this email reaches you late in the day but some of the key issues we discussed and decisions we have made are as follows:

Spring Term teaching

Only a small number of exempted courses - at York, Medicine, Nursing, Midwifery, Social Work and PGCE in Education - can now proceed in accordance with our existing plans for blended learning provision.

We have made the very difficult decision that all classroom-based teaching activity will be delivered online for the entirety of the Spring Term. We hope to be able to provide in-person teaching using specialist teaching spaces (eg lab and performance spaces), subject to further Government guidance, later in the term.

Government advises that we cannot allow students to return to in-person teaching before mid-February at the earliest, and our realistic assessment is that this may well be extended, and with the plan to stagger start dates this would leave little, if any, teaching time for classroom-based subjects before the end of term. The decision to move online has not been taken lightly. We know students have a preference for in-person teaching, but we recognise that they - and all of you - also need clarity, consistency and a period of stability as we tackle the pandemic given the new strain of this virus.

Some important detail, acknowledgements and flexibility:

  • We know that moving to online only will have different implications for different subjects/disciplines. Tracy Lightfoot, PVC Teaching, Learning and Students, the Deans and Academic Contingency Group will work closely with Departments to understand the impact of those implications. This may include the need to find alternative ways to meet programme learning outcomes.

  • Whilst we understand that there are a number of pressing concerns for students, we recognise that those related to final year projects (UG and PGT) are particularly challenging. We are working hard to identify ways to prioritise resumption of these projects as soon as possible, in line with health and safety considerations and UK Government guidance.

  • In addition, we know that some programmes in Sciences and Arts & Humanities are dependent on the use of specialist teaching spaces. We are exploring opportunities to prioritise the resumption of in-person teaching activities in these specialist spaces as soon as possible, again in line with health and safety considerations and UK Government guidance.

  • We are working through the implications for our GTAs and vital support offered to teaching and learning.

Supporting students

In addition to the academic support, we know a significant number of students have remained in or returned to York (whether on campus or in the city), whilst most will be engaging with the University at distance. We will be reviewing how best we can support students and their wellbeing in different locations and exploring additional ways to amplify our provision of academic, social, pastoral and wellbeing and employability initiatives.

Critical workers

While the general lockdown guidance is to stay at home and work from home if possible, University staff are eligible, unlike the March 2020 lockdown, to travel to work as critical workers.

We are progressing the following categories of staff to be deemed as critical workers and therefore not bound by the working from home guidance and able to attend work (unless they have been advised to shield):

  1. Teaching - as we know, we have guidance to resume our blend of online and in-person teaching on certain courses, including Medicine, Nursing and Midwifery, PGCE courses in Education, and Social Work. There may be further in-person teaching activities later in the term. We are working through any implications for our GTAs.

  2. Research - researchers who need to access on-campus specialist spaces and facilities to carry out their research may continue to do so. We will review health and safety assessments of the use of these spaces and facilities and will work with Departments if we need to change or limit access. We will also be considering implications for fieldwork. Government advice to date has also advised us that postgraduate researchers should be treated on the same basis as employees, so should work from home if they can, but those who require access to specialist facilities for their work may also do so.

  3. Supporting students and essential operations - staff who have been working on campus as critical workers to front-line services should also continue to access campus.

In other aspects of our work, we aim to have fewer members of staff on campus at any one time to help mitigate risk and ask that we revert to online and remote working arrangements where possible. We also appreciate that this means some staff will be eligible for furlough and we are working on the detailed implementation of any furlough arrangements that can be made.

For all those continuing this on-campus activity, we are reviewing all of our health and safety risk assessments, to provide assurance that we are operating as safely as possible in these difficult circumstances.

Supporting staff and postgraduate researchers

We are pushing hard for more clarity on critical worker status (whether working on campus or working from home) to enable children to access schools and educational settings. Further guidance is expected shortly from the Department for Education on this and we are also working with City of York Council on a shared understanding of who is eligible to apply for critical worker school access.

The new guidance also reintroduces shielding for those with especially vulnerable health conditions. We will be working on a set of flexible and supportive Covid-19 measures similar to those we had in place last spring in order to help colleagues manage these new circumstances.

Further information and support

Above all, safety and wellbeing remain our priority. I appreciate that many of you were hoping for an earlier return to more on-campus activity in 2021, but the new Government guidance makes it very clear the steps we all need to take to help tackle the pandemic given the new strain of this virus. To that end we are also reviewing all of our risk assessments and any further mitigation measures we may need to introduce on campus to support everyone’s safety.

I know you will have many more questions, so thank you for your patience and understanding as we work through the detail to be able to give you more clarity and support.

Best wishes