Wednesday 13 January 2021

All PGRs email

Covid-19 update for postgraduate researchers

Dear postgraduate researchers,

There are quite a few things I would like to update you on regarding additional measures to support researchers on and off campus, teaching and learning, Covid testing, and wellbeing support.

I am mindful that, with rising numbers of cases and pressure on the NHS across the UK, new and revised guidance is likely to emerge and we will need to be ready to respond again. I am sorry for how much information is shared in this email, but as the situation continues to change, so do our plans about how best to support you and keep you safe. My emails hopefully provide a useful summary in one place.

Return to campus:

  • In line with government guidance, I’d like to reiterate that you may only leave your home for your research or other work if you cannot reasonably work from home. We have created practical guidance for staff and PGRs 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 GTAs 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 labs and performance spaces) later in the term if at all possible, but this will be subject to further Government guidance.

  • We have updated taught students about the measures we are putting in place to address the ongoing impact the pandemic may be having on their studies. We have made updates to the Assessment Support package section of our Covid site to clarify further how these measures will benefit students. GTAs can direct taught students to these pages if they receive assessment enquiries.

  • For GTAs, if you have been booked to teach and this teaching has been cancelled as a result of the move to online teaching, and a suitable alternative option cannot be found for you, then the University will still pay you for the hours recorded in Dashboard.

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. The library remains open with bookable study spaces available.

  • Specific approvals are needed for a limited amount of essential field work. Talk to your departmental manager or technical manager if you have questions about this.

  • Face-to-face research (such as interviews, participant observation, ethnography) should move online where possible.

  • PGRs should talk to their supervisors and TAP team in the first instance about changes to research plans and any permissions (e.g. ethical review), logistical changes or risk assessments required.

Covid Testing:

  • We have seen well over 2,000 covid tests booked through our own testing centre so far, and it is important that anybody 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.

  • If you’re living off-campus in York, we encourage you to get tested so you know you are not unknowingly contributing to any transmission and that you’re helping protect our whole community.

  • 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.

Self-isolating:

Please remember that if you test positive, and you are self-isolating, you and your household should not leave your accommodation for the period of time you need to self-isolate. This includes leaving for food or supplies. We have even more support on offer this term for any of our PGRs who are self-isolating, including vouchers, activity packs and food packs, so please complete the self-isolation form and our advisers will be in touch with details of how to access the support package.

Accommodation support:

We understand that many of you in private accommodation off-campus are concerned about your rent payments. Together with our Student Unions and the Vice Chancellor of York St John University I have written to our local MPs to ask for support from the Government, and will be making the same point directly to ministers whenever I have the opportunity.

Supporting postgraduate researchers:

  • 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 researchers 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 supervisor discuss your workload and your home commitments to see what solutions can be reached. Supervisors and researchers are encouraged to carry on making use of new and existing flexible working arrangements.

  • We shared Government guidance last week about colleagues - including PGRs - in Higher Education being considered in scope as ‘critical workers’ for eligibility for school places. Last night, we received revised guidance from the Department for Education, which outlines the type of ‘critical work’ that may be prioritised for accessing school places. However, there is still a significant degree of interpretation, so we are seeking urgent further clarification before we communicate further on this matter.

  • The University Executive Board has approved further support for students (UG/PGT/PGR, full- or part-time, online/distance learning) 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 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.

Listening to PGR feedback, what many of you are missing the most is the ability to meet with others in your departments. I recognise how difficult it must be to feel part of a community in a way you would have during normal times. Together with your academic departments, York Graduate Research School and the GSA, we are working on ways to help you connect with each other through events, e.g. Thrive and Survive in your PhD, and initiatives, e.g. Writing Groups, and by forming online learning communities, e.g. Academic Skills Community Groups. We will share more details as soon as possible. Don't forget you can find out more about what’s on, how to connect with others, and find ideas of what to do during lockdown on our Covid webpages.

While things will remain challenging for some time, the acceleration of the vaccine programme and the approval of a third vaccine (Moderna) does give us cause to look ahead with at least a little optimism. 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.

Best wishes

Charlie