Following the message that we sent on Monday about the impact of the national restrictions, we have now received a letter to universities from the Universities Minister, Michelle Donelan, and further DfE guidance. We have also discussed the matter with the Director of Public Health for Birmingham and received his support for our approach.
As we set out on Monday, the government is clear that universities will remain open and that student learning can continue as planned while the national restrictions are in place. The guidance from the DfE recognises that: ‘A great deal of work has been, and continues to be, undertaken by providers to ensure the learning environment is COVID-safe. We would expect face to face teaching to continue under the new restrictions where providers are able to do so in a COVID-secure way.’
DfE also advises that universities should continue to work with their local Public Health Team, and we have been in contact with the Director of Public Health for Birmingham and he has confirmed his agreement that our existing balance of face-to-face and online teaching is in line with the current DfE Tier 2 approach. This is based on our risk assessments to ensure a quality teaching experience for students and our original cautious approach to the amount of face-to-face teaching that we recommended under the Framework for Educational Resilience. Other universities in the city expect to be in a similar position. Current information from others in the Russell Group is that the majority are also retaining a balance of in-person and online teaching based on their local regional position in line with DfE guidance, which will mean there are some differences between different regions.
This extended briefing provides an overview of the guidance and our plans for the period of national restrictions, which will be in place until 3 December. This briefing covers the following five areas that we understand staff will be particularly interested in:
- Covid cases
- Teaching, libraries and study space
- Guidance on working from home and working from campus
- Facilities and Services
Covid cases and transmission
The latest seven-day figures for new Covid cases among students and staff have seen a further significant drop and stands at 56 student and 7 staff cases over the last week. This continuing reduction in new cases is heartening and reflects the excellent partnership working with the Guild of Students on a range of supportive measures. Academics within our Institute for Applied Health Research have been carrying out analysis of our data and Professors KK Cheng and Tom Marshall have provided the following update:
“Although there continue to be new cases of Covid-19 in the University of Birmingham, numbers are substantially lower than in early October. Since the start of term, 95% of cases have been in students and sometimes there has been more than one case in students sharing the same flat, adjacent flats or accommodation block. There have been very few cases among staff. Overall this suggests that transmission may be occurring in shared accommodation rather than on campus. The pattern of notification of cases does not suggest there has been transmission to either staff or students during face to face teaching. We therefore think the risk from face to face teaching is very low.”
Teaching, libraries and study space
Face-to-face and online teaching
Both the Universities Minister’s letter and the latest DfE guidance make clear that universities are expected to continue to deliver a blended model of face-to-face and online teaching and that ‘Universities should continue to agree with their local public health teams on the appropriate balance of online and in person teaching, based on the overall assessment of the public health risks, including to the mental health of students and the status of local outbreaks.’
Having consulted with the city’s Director of Public Health, he has confirmed that we should continue with our current balance of face-to-face and online teaching, which is consistent with the city’s local risk position and current DfE Tier 2 approach. This means we can continue with our current blend of online and on-campus delivery. It is also important to note that when we designed the Framework for Education Resilience, we took a very cautious approach to the scheduling of on-campus teaching to ensure it was the minimum required to meet student needs while ensuring the campus would remain COVID-secure. Maintaining face-to-face teaching for students on campus is important for students’ education and wellbeing.
Libraries and study spaces
Maintaining an on-campus experience for students is particularly important given that students have been advised by government to remain on campus and not return to their family homes during this period of national restrictions. In order to support this, the government has also confirmed that ‘libraries and study spaces on campus should remain open to students and staff, for educational purposes, and must continue to maintain COVID-secure measures. Students must use the study spaces independently and must not gather in study spaces, unless as part of an in-person, scheduled seminar or tutorial’ and we will be communicating with students to reinforce this.
As we communicated on Monday, the expectation is that research facilities and laboratories, and other research spaces on campus will remain open during the period of national restrictions, and will be accessible for all researchers, including postgraduate research students, to continue their research ‘in person’ if it cannot reasonably be continued by working at home. The current social distancing measures in all research areas will remain in place, and we ask researchers to observe these carefully. We recognise that there was considerable disruption of the research activities of many staff and postgraduate students over the previous period of national restrictions, and we are endeavouring to support and encourage the continuation of your research now as far as possible. We hope it will still be possible for you to work purposefully and productively in this period.
We recognise however that some on-campus research projects may have reached a phase of development where the next month would be a good time to, for example, analyse the data, plan the next phase of work, draft a paper, thesis chapter or grant application, or focus on some computational work – research work that may not require you to be on campus. In that case, in view of the general national guidelines, it may be appropriate to spend a greater proportion of your time working from home (if there is a suitable working environment for you there) and you should discuss and agree that with your supervisor and collaborating members of your research team as appropriate.
The DfE provided further clarification yesterday, particularly in relation to ‘in-person research activity requiring gathering with others’, for example, research participants. The advice states that ‘if the research participants are not being paid, and the participants’ involvement is not crucial within this period, we recommend that work with research participants is rescheduled until after the period of national restrictions.’
Professor Tim Softley will be working with the College Directors of Research to review research activity on campus in light of the latest guidance and provide further updates as required.
Guidance on Working from Home/Working on campus
The University has reviewed and amended its guidance on staff working in light of the government’s guidance, as set out below. The context for the guidance is the announcement of a further period of Coronavirus restrictions. Critically, this differs significantly from the March lockdown when we moved to a period of highly restrictive campus operations, since universities now are remaining open with students in residence. The guidance has been designed to strike the appropriate balance between the expectation that universities remain open, continuing to deliver blended teaching, sustaining campus research and maintaining support on campus for students; and the more general public health message that staff should work from home where it is possible to do so for the period of national restriction. It is envisaged that there will be fewer staff working on campus during this period of national restrictions.
This guidance replaces that previously circulated at the end of September and covers the period 5 November to 3 December 2020
Staff who should continue to work on campus during the period of national restrictions
In some of the categories below a full-time presence on campus will be required; in others it will be as agreed with the line manager on a part-time or occasional basis with the remainder of working time spent working from home;
- all those delivering face-to-face teaching, supporting those who deliver such teaching, together with those required to support any other form of academic interaction as determined by their College;
- all those providing support and other services to students or applicants where campus presence is required to deliver this support;
- all those providing support and other services to staff on campus where campus presence is required to deliver that support;
- all those undertaking research on campus where there is not a natural break allowing remote working as outlined in the section on research above, or those whose role supports that research, including technical staff;
- all those responsible for the safety and security of campus buildings and equipment;
- all those providing those campus services for staff, students and others on campus, which remain consistent with national restrictions;
- all those providing essential health screening services for staff or students where these cannot be delivered remotely;
- all those who need to manage or provide the effective handover of information, materials or University property as a result of resignation or departure under VLS.
Staff who need not work on campus during the period of national restrictions
Reflecting public health guidance, any member of staff not in a category listed above who can work effectively from home.
Staff who may work on campus during the period of national restrictions
Any member of staff who is not required by nature of their role to work on campus, but who feels that their mental or physical wellbeing or ability to deliver their role most effectively requires a campus presence some or all of the time. This is possible given that campus remains open, but must be with the agreement of the Director of Professional Services or the College Director of Operations and with due regard to health and safety considerations including the avoidance of lone working.
Staff who should not work on campus
- Any member of staff who has been through a return to work on campus assessment and has been advised by Occupational Health or a medical professional (including a midwife in respect of pregnancy) not to travel to work on campus.
- Any member of staff previously in receipt of a letter asking them to shield; while shielding has not formally been reintroduced, government advice is currently that those previously shielding who are extremely clinically vulnerable should not work other than, where it is possible, from home. However, the government has advised that ‘others living in a household with someone who is clinically extremely vulnerable are not advised to follow shielding guidance. They should instead continue to attend work and school in accordance with the general advice and regulations.’ The University will provide more guidance to staff once further government guidance on this matter has been published. In the meantime, if staff in the clinically extremely vulnerable category have any immediate concerns, they should raise these in the first instance with their line manager.
As staff will be aware, the Prime Minister announced on Saturday that there will be an extension of the furlough scheme until December as a direct result of the national restrictions. The government are yet to publish details of the furlough scheme for November and once these have been published, the University will determine whether it is eligible to make use of the scheme and if so, which staff groups are likely to be affected. Staff should be assured that regardless of whether they are placed on furlough or not, they will continue to receive 100% of their normal salary during the period of the national restrictions, effective from 5 November 2020.
Facilities and Services
Buildings and maintenance
Unlike the March lockdown, we are not intending to shut down buildings but instead are planning for almost all buildings to remain open and operational during the period of national restrictions, with existing risk assessments, existing COVID-secure measures and current cleaning regimes all remaining in place. If you are unsure of the status of a building please contact your Director of Operations or Operations Manager for clarification.
Car parks will remain open and we will be suspending all car parking charges for staff for the duration of the period of national restrictions to support those who travel to work by car.
Sports, Museums and Galleries
In line with national guidance, the University’s Sports Centre and Tiverton Gym, Raymond Priestly Centre, Lapworth Museum, Barber Institute, Elgar Concert Hall, and Winterbourne House will all close to the public from Thursday, although they will continue to be open specifically for research and teaching activity. Winterbourne Gardens will also be open for staff and student use.
Cafes and catering
There will be a limited number of catering outlets open on campus to support students and those staff who continue to work from campus – but, with the exception of catering on the Vale student meal plan dining area, they will only provide takeaway or click and collect services under the new government guidance. The list of open venues will be included in Friday’s all staff briefing.
The government has made clear that all educational establishments will remain open and that this includes nurseries. Staff whose children currently attend one of the university day nurseries will be able to access a care service throughout the period of national restrictions.
As always, we will continue to keep these measures under review in light of any changes to government or local guidance and hope that this email provides reassurance that we continue to take a balanced and appropriate approach to ensure that we keep the University open, teach and support our students, deliver research, maintain health and safety for staff and students, while being mindful of public health.
Thank you for your continued support and commitment during these challenging times.
Internal Communications Team