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Planning our phased return to campus

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The Vice-Chancellor spoke to colleagues last week as part of his summer briefings. He outlined the challenges we face as an institution and what steps we are taking to respond to or deal with these challenges. Questions at the session covered five broad themes – furloughing, plans for phased return, process for considering financial challenges, student recruitment and COVID-19’s impact on the next academic year.

In the second of the five updates covering the questions asked, Julian Park and Parveen Yaqoob, co-chairs of the COVID-19 Major Incident Team, provide an update on planning for return to campus.

The Prime Minister’s announcement last week made clear that current lockdown arrangements will be in place for some time and any easing of restrictions is likely to be limited. We can also assume that social distancing and travel restrictions, in some form or another, will be with us for several months.

One of the major areas of work for the Major Incident Team already fully underway is how we plan our return to campus in these circumstances. In the same way that the introduction of restrictions was phased, any lifting or relaxing will certainly take place in stages as well. That means we are unlikely to all be back on campus for some months, on a timetable largely set by the government guidelines.

Restarting life on campus is not a straight forward process. For example, since we scaled down our on-site activities, we have been unable to do some of the usual maintenance, cleaning or safety checks in buildings that are unoccupied. These would need to be done before people could return, and the contractors we use to undertake some of this work are likely to be in high demand. New access arrangements may also be required in some buildings to allow for social distancing, and this will be harder for some facilities than others. Additional cleaning may also be required, particularly in shared spaces.

So UEB has agreed that our phased return will be guided by the following principles:

  • we must be guided first and foremost by the safety of colleagues and students;
  • we should keep as many buildings as possible closed until June (with the position reviewed monthly), and this may require some people who are returning to campus to work somewhere other than their normal location;
  • where buildings are re-opened, access will not be automatic and will be agreed with Heads of Schools and Functions based on priority activities and needs
  • for most colleagues, working away from campus will continue for the foreseeable future;
  • our first phase of return should prioritise restarting research and fieldwork, where safe to do so, particularly if there are significant financial or time implications for this work
  • Provision should be made for short-term access to buildings, in a managed way, to allow colleagues to collect materials that they require for teaching, research or other priority activities like student recruitment.

Based on these principles, the MIT has been engaging with Heads of Schools and Functions to identify priority activity for the first phase of return, which will likely start as soon as it is safe and feasible to do so when government restrictions are eased. It is clear from these discussions that we need to consider how we manage access to labs and collections to facilitate research, the need for updated risk assessments that take account of social distancing requirements, and that consideration will need to be given to lecture capture facilities if some teaching needs to be maintained online. In time, teams may start returning on a part-time basis, mixing home and campus based working to minimise the number of people in work spaces at any one time. 

If you have to collect essential material or equipment without which you can’t carry out your work you can gain permission to come on to campus and entry to a particular building by completing this form (University log in required). All questions should be completed and the form submitted, when consent from your head of School or Function will be sought. You will be contacted with the result of the decision. If approval is given you will be contacted and arrangements made for a mutually convenient time and date for you to be met and to allow entry to your building to collect your items. In completing this form and access being granted, you agree to return all University property when the situation allows.

To minimise visitors to campus, it would be very helpful for teams to liaise together to arrange for one person to collect and distribute belongings where possible, this should be detailed in the form. Please only do this if it is safe for you to deliver items or material to colleagues afterwards.

Please do not come to campus without prior approval as you will not be able to gain entry to your building and will be asked to return when you have permission.

Given the ongoing restrictions, Senate has agreed that it will not be possible to hold exams in August/September on campus and they will need to take place as ‘take home’ exams and alternate assessment, in the same way as the current summer term exams. We are aware that some exams with practical components cannot be undertaken remotely, and relevant Schools are liaising with professional bodies and considering how to manage this. Our colleagues in Estates and Campus Commerce are also working on systems that will allow managed return by students who have left belongings in Halls or elsewhere. All of these developments are being shared with students by email, and our student information on Essentials is also being kept up to date, to which colleagues also have access.

Any return will only take place when we are sure that it is safe to do so, in line with government guidance and expert advice. We understand that some people may feel anxious about returning, and a coordinated and phased process will hopefully alleviate these concerns. We also know that there will be some colleagues and students with underlying health conditions for whom return will need to be carefully managed.

In short, it is difficult to say definitively when we will all be back on campus and operating as normal. However, work is already well progressed to support this in a managed and prioritised way. Until then, please continue to remain away from campus until you are expressly advised that you can return, even if government restrictions are relaxed. This will ensure that our eventual return is safe and manageable for us all.

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