Plans for 2021/22 teaching and research arrangements on campus
Email sent to all colleagues on Tuesday 18 May 2021 from Roger Gair, University Secretary.
I write to update you on planned research and teaching arrangements for the 2021/22 academic year, based on our assumptions about social distancing requirements in teaching and work spaces on campus.
We are at a point where we now need to make some decisions about how we will operate during 2021/22, despite uncertainty about the Covid-related guidance and restrictions that might be in place for universities from September.
This email outlines the principles, agreed by the University Executive Group (our most senior management body), which will inform how we will observe social distancing on campus from the start of the next academic year, and how these will read through to research, student education and the student experience generally.
There are two very important principles that underpin our planning assumptions:
- First, our over-riding priority will remain the health, safety and wellbeing of our entire university community. Whilst there are reasons to be optimistic about the future, particularly with the success of the vaccine roll out, events over recent days, with sharp increases in the so-called ‘Indian Covid variant’ in parts of the West Midlands, North West and London, are a reminder that we are still in a volatile and unpredictable situation. Indeed, based on its modelling, SAGE – the Government scientific advisory group – observes that it is ‘highly likely’ that there will be a further escalation in hospitalisations and deaths after the current stage of the Government’s planned roadmap out of lockdown, although it acknowledges that the timing of this is hard to predict. More details of roadmap modelling are available on the Government website.
- Second, it will be much easier to pivot from some restrictions to no restrictions than the other way around. If we bet now on a complete return to normality by the start of the new academic year, and events prove us wrong, it is highly likely we will need to return to a much longer period of near fully online teaching than would be the case if we still have some mitigations in place. In short, by being prudent now, we provide ourselves with more flexibility later. It goes without saying that we will want to ease any restrictions on campus as early as possible, provided this can be done safely and is in line with Government guidance and requirements at the time.
General approach to social distancing in 2021/22
The Government hopes that, dependent on Covid data, all legal limits on social contact can be removed from Monday 21 June (stage four of its roadmap). This is reliant on four tests being passed. However, even if all restrictions are lifted then, we are not expecting supporting Department for Education guidance for HE providers until at least Monday 28 June.
Given the complexity of logistical planning – particularly timetabling – it is evident that we cannot wait until the end of June to plan for September. To aid our planning, UEG has therefore agreed that we will work on the assumption that we will operate a 50% occupancy rate in most teaching and work spaces (or 1m social distancing, alongside other Covid-protection measures, in labs and some teaching rooms) to enable a comfortable and safe distance between occupants. This will vary depending on the layout of individual rooms.
Additional Covid-secure measures (use of face coverings, lateral flow testing etc.) will be in place, as required by the specific working environment and the Government restrictions in place at the time. We will continue to provide hand sanitiser and cleaning materials in all spaces across campus.
We are confident that this approach will enable us to return as safely and swiftly as possible to an on-campus student experience, and make adjustments to our activity depending on the course of the pandemic.
At present, most research facilities on campus are open. In accordance with Government guidance, the norm for research space is 2m social distancing. As we look forward to a possible relaxation of lockdown restrictions, we can, however, increasingly move to 1m social distancing when there are other appropriate Covid-protection measures in place. While the current Government restrictions remain in force, any such arrangements continue to need sign-off by the Head of School and by Health and Safety colleagues (and, of course, have to be underpinned by a full risk assessment).
There are already procedures in place to permit travel for research and teaching purposes consistent with Government restrictions; again, a full risk assessment needs to have high-level approval and be reviewed by a health and safety manager. Further details are set out in the staff travel advice section of the coronavirus website. We will ease restrictions on travel as we are allowed to.
Delivering student education and the student experience from September
Our objective for next session is to provide every student with a substantial and sustained curriculum-based, on-campus experience. This means:
- Students will receive academically-led, engaging, face-to-face teaching activity each week throughout the semester. This includes seminars, tutorials, practical classes, performance activities, discussion groups etc.
- They will receive a blended experience, where digital technologies, digital approaches and online learning are used to augment and enrich face-to-face, in-person learning activities, and increase access, flexibility and inclusivity.
- All assessment activities will be taken online, other than when there is an exceptional and agreed academic rationale.
- Teaching activities with high numbers of students, including large lectures, might be mostly online, as part of our blended approach. However, there will be many other face-to-face activities, as detailed above.
- We will provide opportunities and space for informal social and group learning on campus.
- We will support and encourage on-campus co-curricular and extra-curricular activities.
- Students will be expected to attend campus, and face-to-face sessions will be a core and substantial part of their education and experience.
- If a student can’t attend in person for exceptional reasons, we will provide an alternative or rescheduled learning experience.
We expect relevant staff to be present on campus to deliver these activities, and campus will continue to be kept ‘Covid-secure’ to support this.
In summary, whilst planning with uncertainty is never easy, we are adopting what we believe is the responsible approach of following the latest scientific predictions and advice. In doing so, our aim is to provide a blended educational provision that optimises the balance between face-to-face and online delivery, based upon both the predicted and the actual circumstances at the time.
Returning to campus
As previously communicated, we will be sending separate communications regarding the arrangements for the return to campus for our wider community. Alongside this, we will provide regular updates over the coming weeks on developments relating to specific activities and issues, for example travel.
Whilst the past 14 months have been a period of unparalleled challenge, we have met that challenge with determination, creativity and always with the needs of our students at the very heart of our decision making.
This has been achieved through the dedication, determination and hard work of all colleagues and, once again, I thank you all for everything you have done. Continuing this approach will serve us well for the future.
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