The start of any academic year always brings a sense of both excitement and trepidation - for staff returning from a summer break, and for students resuming or commencing their studies at Nottingham for the first time. This year of course, such feelings will be greatly magnified by the impact of COVID-19 and the extensive measures put in place to keep our community safe. I wrote recently about my own initial trepidation on returning to campus, which gave way very quickly to pleasure in meeting staff and students in person.
The past six months have been some of the most challenging in our history, while so many of us have been away from campus, conducting research off site, teaching online, and working from home. I recognise that there will be a wide variety of emotions about the start of term, ranging from an excited impatience to return to campus to an apprehension about what that will feel and look like.
Of course, members of staff have continued to work on campus since the beginning of national lockdown, and here I pay a special tribute to security and cleaning staff, research colleagues and lab technicians, and those who have supported students who remained in halls. During the last few weeks, many more staff have now returned to campus to resume their research, prepare for teaching, introduce social distancing measures and support colleagues who are still required to work from home.
Today we have published a set of clear principles to support a careful, safe and phased return by staff to our UK campuses between now and January 2021. Leaders and managers will tailor their plans for staff return against a number of criteria which prioritise their need to be on campus, for example to resume in-person teaching, conduct research or support our students. These will naturally be informed by and support individual staff health declarations, risk assessments and any adjustments due to changes in the national alert level or local restrictions.
Following these principles will allow us to deliver on our teaching and learning promises, ensure we create the university experience our students expect at Nottingham, while reducing the pressure on the infrastructure and facilities that support us all. We will embed our COVID procedures, using lessons learnt from reopening in China and the early return of our Vet School, to ensure that our campuses are as safe as possible.
You may have seen commentary from Independent SAGE and the University and College Union, suggesting that universities should continue to deliver education online and not bring students or staff back to campus until after Christmas. There are some understandable anxieties here; for example the need for a more robust national testing and tracing programme, and the challenge of many thousands of students moving around the UK over a short period of time.
I do not minimise these concerns, which are exacerbated by government vacillations, media scaremongering and the traumatic last few months that will have had a negative impact on all of us. However, I would like to explain why I feel that it is crucial that we rebuild our campus community and provide an on-campus experience - with comprehensive health and safety measures in place.
First of all, this pandemic is not going away anytime soon, but all over the world, we are learning to live with it. The experiences of our campuses in China and Malaysia have demonstrated different ways of adapting to the constraints that we must endure to keep ourselves safe. We recognise what measures we need to take to mitigate the risks of infection, and while media rightly highlight egregious examples of people ignoring guidelines, more people are adhering to social distancing, face coverings and limitations in public spaces than those who are flouting the rules. However, ‘most people are following the rules’ is not really a newsworthy headline.
The long lockdown period, the lack of face-to-face education and communal experience for students and staff is storing up long-term mental health problems. While many have enjoyed studying or working from home, there are others who have suffered from the isolation and loneliness of losing direct contact with friendship networks and serendipitous meetings. There are some people in our community who have underlying health conditions which make them vulnerable, and of course we must not expose them to harm. However, during lockdown, our students have indicated that while they are content with our digital delivery, many have lost motivation and purpose with the lack of live human interaction that is at the core of education and the student experience. While many of our staff have reported feeling more connected through digital media, they have also lamented the loss of the Nottingham community interactions that are so important to them.
I know we all care about each other and our students, but I would like to ask you to think particularly of the 2020 cohort who will be starting university for the first time this month. They were on the verge of taking their final secondary school exams and celebrating the end of term with their friends. That was all taken away from them. They then were locked down, usually with their families, for several months, mostly without structured tuition, unable to see their friends and in many cases not having either the equipment or the environment to study effectively. They then experienced the A-level debacle which further unnerved them. They have little opportunity for a gap year for either travel or work, given restrictions on international travel and levels of unemployment in the wake of the pandemic. How will these students respond to an expectation that they should continue to stay home and learn online until Christmas - and what would happen after that, if no vaccine has been found?
Health and safety concerns must be at the forefront of a return to campus. We have had productive consultations with our staff and students’ unions over the last few months as we have developed our plans. Colleagues have done an outstanding job preparing the campus for social distancing, mandating face coverings, cleaning and hygiene measures, as well as ensuring that we have a blended learning environment and laboratory rota systems that do not expose either staff or students to large numbers of people congregating in a single place. Term dates and teaching times have been extended to prevent overcrowding in corridors and to allow for cleaning, and students will be required to sign a Community Pledge, to respect and protect those around them with disciplinary consequences if they break the rules. The pilot of student ‘households’ at the Sutton Bonington campus has given us an indication of how these measures might work throughout our halls of residence. Our Students’ Union, Campus Life and Sport colleagues have shown innovation and care in considering how to ensure the student experience will be engaging, supportive and fun, albeit different under the current circumstances.
What may not be so visible to many staff is the enormous amount of time that colleagues in our University, as well as those at Nottingham Trent University (NTU), are spending working with local authorities and public health specialists in both the city and county to ensure there are strong plans in place in the case of local outbreaks. We are also piloting our own testing facility at Sutton Bonington and are exploring whether to roll this out across the whole university, again working in collaboration with NTU.
As we have seen in Leicester and Manchester, there may be local outbreaks in different areas of the country over the coming months, and some of these may be in university towns and cities. Localised restrictions are being used all over the world to deal with such instances, and we have strong plans in place and agreed with our regional partners were such unhappy circumstances to occur in our community.
However, in preparing our phased return to campus, we have been decisive in our approach to health and safety for all members of our community, alongside our commitment to supporting the class of 2020. In managing that return, we will continue to act in accordance with the values which drive our University: to be inclusive, to foster ambition, to ensure openness and fairness, and to treat others with kindness and respect.
As ever I want to thank you all for your continued commitment to the University and I wish you a happy and healthy new academic year.
Professor Shearer West
2 September 2020