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COVID-19 Update: University's proposed approach to lockdown

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The following message was sent to all colleagues from Professors Julian Park and Dominik Zaum, Co-Chairs of the University of Reading Major Response Team.

Dear colleagues,

Further to Parveen and Paul's message on Sunday, we wanted to update you on the University's planning for the four weeks of lockdown (5 November to 2 December, when it will be reviewed).

In addition to the general government lockdown guidance released at the weekend, we have now received a letter from the Minister for Universities, Michelle Donelan, and guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) setting out more detailed information for universities. These contain a number of important points:

  • Everyone, including students, must follow guidance for the new restrictions in England from 5 November. Students are expected to stay at university and not move between their term-time and home address during the lockdown, and they are also expected not to travel home before lockdown starts on 5 November.
  • Protecting students' mental health and wellbeing must remain a priority.
  • Universities are expected to continue delivering a blend of online and COVID-safe face-to-face teaching, subject to risk assessments and in consultation with their local public health team, and to keep libraries and study space open.
  • In-person research activities can continue if the research work cannot reasonably be conducted from home or without gathering with others. Where it is reasonable to do so, in-person research activity requiring gathering with others should be paused for the period of national restrictions.
  • Catering outlets on campus need to follow the takeaway-only model, with the likely exception of those providing for catered halls students.
  • University gym and leisure facilities must close.
  • New guidance will be published for clinically extremely vulnerable people in England. If you are in this group, you should speak to your line manager. This guidance will apply to individuals only. Others living in a household with someone who is clinically extremely vulnerable are not advised to follow this guidance. They should instead continue to attend work.

We have used all of this information to prepare a one-page document that outlines how we propose to implement the lockdown across our main areas of activity. Please take some time to read it in detail. Below are some specific points on face-to-face teaching, research and office working.

An update message is also being sent to students shortly.

Continuing our face-to-face teaching

Feedback shows the value our students place on the in-person sessions they are having, both for their educational development and their welfare. Students have said that it is a welcome way to interact safely with people outside their household. For the most disadvantaged students, maintaining some level of in-person activity has particular value. This is also reflected in the guidance published by government. The DfE guidance notes the importance of face-to-face teaching and states:

Universities have worked hard to put in place measures, following guidance on reopening buildings and campuses in higher education to ensure that teaching and learning is provided in COVID-secure environments, and we have not seen evidence of increased transmission within these environments.

Providers will wish to undertake new risk assessments for the remainder of the term to evaluate whether it is appropriate to move more learning online. However, the government recognises the central importance of face-to-face teaching, including for the mental health and wellbeing of students, and expects this to continue where it can be done safely.

Given the importance of continued face-to-face teaching both for educational and welfare reasons, and the clear direction from the guidance published by government, we intend to continue with our current blended approach of online and face-to-face teaching, with strict adherence to all the safety measures we already have in place.

Some colleagues have expressed concerns about continuing face-to-face teaching. We would, therefore, like to reassure you as much as we can by reiterating some of the points in Parveen and Paul's earlier message.

Given the safety measures we have in place, Public Health England (PHE) has expressed confidence in our ongoing provision of in-person teaching. Student cases of COVID-19 are increasing, but this increase shows a clear pattern of transmission in social and household settings, most likely because social distancing and other safety measures are not necessarily being adhered to.

By contrast, PHE has advised that the controlled environment of teaching settings does not present an identifiable risk for colleagues or students because of the range of safety measures and additional provisions in place, like social distancing, wearing of face coverings and regular cleaning, plus use of hand sanitiser and anti-bacterial wipes. Teaching colleagues are advised to maintain a distance of more than 2 metres from their students, to put them outside the distance used in the definition of close contact. Of the very small number of staff cases reported so far, those affected have either not been on campus or have not been involved in teaching so could not have contracted it in that setting.

We reviewed this position with our local PHE team on Monday, following the government announcement, and they continue to be confident about our level of face-to-face delivery. As required by the DfE guidance, will continue to work closely with a local public health team to ensure that we are continuing to operate safely for both our colleagues and our students.

We know some students will continue their studies remotely, and we have online provision available so that they can do so. But given PHE confidence in the safety of our teaching settings, and the significant benefit to student experience, it makes sense to maintain as much in-person activity as we can.

If you feel that you are particularly vulnerable, for example because of an underlying health condition, then we would encourage you to revisit your teaching risk assessment with your line manager or Head of School and identify whether any changes are necessary.

We recognise that the concurrent provision of online and face-to-face teaching creates additional work, and that many colleagues are going above and beyond to support our students and their learning. We are hugely grateful for your commitment and efforts.

Continuing research

We already have a range of safety measures in place to allow for research activity to take place on our campuses in a COVID-safe way. The new DfE guidance recommends that during the lockdown period research is conducted from home wherever possible. However, on-site or group research activity is allowed, with appropriate COVID-safe measures in place, if it cannot be conducted in some other way and it is not appropriate to pause it. 

However, DfE does recommend that in-person research activity requiring gathering with others should be paused for the period of national restrictions where this can reasonably be done.

To help facilitate ongoing research, our Library and special collections reading room will remain open, both with slightly reduced hours. The Library's Click and Collect service will continue. Our museums, however, must close under the lockdown restrictions.

Office-based working

A large number of colleagues are already working wholly or partially from home, and the government continues to advise home-working where possible during the lockdown period. The government guidance makes clear, however, that people can go to work where they cannot perform their role at home.

On this basis, we would encourage colleagues to speak to their line manager about continued home-working where that is feasible and appropriate. However, if you do need to be on campus to undertake your role then please continue to do so.

We hope this update has been helpful. Our COVID-19 Support Line launched on Monday, so if you have any questions, please call 0118 214 7813 between 9am and 5pm on weekdays and 11am and 4pm on weekends. We can remain hopeful that this period of lockdown will succeed in lowering COVID-19 cases both in Reading and nationally. Nevertheless, the pandemic is an ongoing cause of anxiety, so do check our Wellbeing webpages if you would like to access the support available to you.

Best wishes,

Julian and Dominik

 

Professor Julian Park (Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Education and Student Experience) and Professor Dominik Zaum (Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Research and Innovation)
Co-Chairs, University of Reading Major Response Team

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