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Follow up: Important update following the raising of COVID-19 alert level - 22 September 2020

Dear Colleagues,

Background

Following the decision by the UK’s four chief medical officers to raise the national Covid-19 alert level to 4 we have been reviewing the impact on University activities and services. In response VCEG have agreed a number of changes, which are listed below.

Our job this evening interpreting this latest change has not been straight forward. Firstly we have had to consider what has actually changed in relation to our normal approaches to campus management as a result of the Prime Minister’s announcements today. Secondly we have had to factor in the recent Department for Education (DfE) guidance on the tiering system we should use to guide our approach to operations. Thirdly we have had to understand the impact of our sector becoming, like schools, an ‘essential’ sector. And finally we had to work to interpret the government definition of what the national alert stages actually mean, which has changed significantly since May when we were last at alert level 4. This final step is essential to ensure that our response is proportionate to other responses in the education sector and wider society. 

I ask therefore that you take the time to read this note carefully to understand how we have come to conclusions about how to proceed and also to recognise that we will have to review our responses and plans on a weekly basis moving forward to ensure they remain fit for purpose as the situation changes both locally and nationally.

Firstly then it is important to note that we await further detailed guidance from Government, beyond the DfE guidance issued on the 10th of September, on how they expect the new alert level will affect universities. It is clear however that university education will be classed as ‘Essential’, in line with schools and further education colleges. The Government has set a clear expectation that universities will stay open and continue to deliver blended degree programmes, due to the importance of education and the health and wellbeing of young people and we must respect and support that expectation.

Secondly it is also important to recognise that the Government’s descriptions of conditions under the various alert levels has changed dramatically. In the summer, when we wrote our guidance on the impacts to University activities and services at each of the five alert levels, Government were describing level 4 as ‘Nationwide lockdown imposed by law’. In the latest version of the alert levels published in September, level 4 is described as ‘Social distancing continues’ and only level 5 is described as resulting in a ‘National lockdown’. We chose to use the government alert levels to frame our description of our planned responses to changes in the pandemic because they provided a published independent framework. However, it is clear that the definitions of the alert levels have changed and it is imperative that we adapt our responses in the light of these changes.

The changes announced by the government today with respect to education and commerce are in marked contrast to those announced in March 2020 under alert level 4. Now schools, pubs, restaurants and shops remain open whereas in the March definition of level 4, all of these were closed. Therefore, it would be disproportionate of us to respond with changes to our plans that were framed in the context of ‘March Level 4’.

When these announcements are read alongside the Government definition of university education as an essential service and the Department for Education direction to sustain blended delivery, it is clear that we must recalibrate the measures and alert levels outlined in our alert level documents.  We are, therefore, keeping to our strategy of alignment with government detailed guidance or being more cautious as the situation demands rather than creating new policies or approaches for ourselves.

Accepting that we will need to be flexible as further guidance is published, we are trying to balance government requirements, the safety of our community and our commitments to provide high quality education and research. We are listening to the views of students and colleagues and we have agreed to make these initial changes having considered everything discussed above:

Key Actions

On teaching

  • We have deliberately begun the academic year at a low level of face-to-face in person teaching on our Exeter campuses, planning to build up to approximately 30% of all live teaching delivered face-to-face on our Exeter campuses over the first three weeks, as part of our blended model, whilst teaching on our Cornwall campus is currently at 30% face-to-face.
  • On this basis, we are content that the teaching planned for this week is aligned to the new risk level and only modest changes are required. Therefore, tomorrow’s teaching (Wednesday 23 September) will proceed as planned. This will also give us time to consider the new guidance and to communicate changes to timetables in a planned way.
  • The only significant adjustment this week will be that from Thursday (24 September) we will move to online all planned on-campus teaching for groups larger than 30 that is not scheduled in a specialist space such as labs and performance spaces.
  • As a result of the new guidance we will limit our levels of in-person teaching to a level below that initially planned for week 3 and beyond. We will review this on a weekly basis, and making sure that staff and students are prioritised in specialist facilities such as labs and performance spaces, and noting that it may be possible to maintain higher levels of face to face activity on some of our campuses.
  • We will be asking Directors of Education to undertake an exercise to identify which teaching sessions should be prioritised for face-to-face teaching as we progress through Term 1. This will enable us to ensure that we can sustain blended delivery for all our programmes and students for as long as the current guidance and situation pertains.

On research

  • Those researchers that are already working on campus can continue with their work on campus.
  • We will review all planned off-site research activity and only that which is deemed essential will be approved.
  • Research with human participants will adopt further digital mitigations where necessary.

On working on campus

  • Only essential employees will be working on campus. It is important to note that with the designation of university education as ‘essential’ and the message that we should remain open, then this will include those involved in delivering and supporting teaching and related student support.
  • As currently, line managers must give permission for colleagues to work on campus.
  • All university meetings will now take place online, unless they are deemed essential to be in person, and can be held with all social distancing measures in place.

On safety measures

  • We will review our current policy on face coverings in line with changing policy. Face coverings must now be worn in retail settings, except by seated customers.
  • You should also note that the fines for those found to be breaching self-isolation, or disregarding the rules, including not wearing a face covering where required, have been increased significantly.

On events

  • We will retain our current approach but will continue to work with the Students’ Guild and Students’ Union to review ways in which student society events may be introduced safely where possible.

On travel

  • No travel within the UK for work purposes will be permitted, unless essential and approved by a line manager. Note that travel to and from campuses to support University operation where required is deemed ‘essential’.

On sports

  • Sports facilities will remain open, but with new restrictions limiting indoor team sports to groups no larger than six.

On cafés and shops

  • Cafes and shops will remain open, but must close by 10pm.
  • Staff in all retail settings must wear face coverings.

On visitors and members of the public

  • Our campuses remain open to visitors and members of the public so long as social distancing measures are adhered to at all times.

Conclusion

I know that these measures represent a range of changes across many areas of our operation, being brought in at short notice. With further guidance expected we will keep these decisions under regular review and I will keep you updated as and when I am able to.

Please be assured that the measures we have in place mean that we can deliver our teaching, research and support, all activities which are deemed essential by the Government, safely and in a COVID-secure way. The health and wellbeing or our staff and students has been and will remain our highest priority.

Best

Mike

Mike Shore-Nye
Registrar and Secretary