Our approach to the new academic year
Soon the new academic term will be upon us. It is a period of excitement and anticipation, with a mixture of nerves, particularly for our new students. This year will be no different, but there will also be something else: anxiety and worry about how things will operate and whether the campus will be safe, particularly for face-to-face teaching and student-staff engagement.
We have and will continue to make the university campus safe. Many of our staff have worked with dedication remotely, often in practically and emotionally difficult circumstances. Others have continued to work on campus.
Sometimes I am asked ‘when will the University re-open?’. Of course, the University never closed. I want to pay particular thanks to colleagues from Estates and Campus Services, Information Services, our technical staff and any other staff who have kept essential support services going and have supported students who remained in our halls, as well as students in other halls and residences who needed emergency support. Thank you.
We can now focus on the future because everyone has played their part – and in many cases far more than their part – to get the University successfully through possibly the most challenging few months in our history.
Our approach to the new academic year
When we started our new academic year planning in April, our priority was to ensure that our new and returning students receive the best learning experience possible in the context of significant unknowns impacting the safety of staff, students and the wider community.
This is the main reason we delayed the start of term. We judged that we wanted as much time as practically possible to get things right. Below I explain how we have done this. First, let me explain why returning to face-to-face teaching and staff-student engagement is so important.
Return to face-to-face teaching
As a university, our fundamental role is to educate. In March, we moved to online learning and assessment. Through the dedication and sometimes heroic efforts of many staff, as well as the commitment and hard work of students in very difficult circumstances, we completed the academic year successfully. It would be unrealistic, however, to expect staff and students to be able to repeat those efforts indefinitely in ways that deliver the level of education to which our students are entitled.
We must also accept that this dreadful pandemic may not go away anytime soon. If universities wait too long to return to face-to-face engagement, thousands of young people will have important parts of their education paused, and quite possibly their long-term futures, blighted.
We also know that the pandemic has had an unequal impact on different young people, as well as their families. Many of our students are more likely to have been negatively affected by some of these effects. We must also take account of the mental health and broader well-being effects our students have experienced since March, particularly those joining us for the first time this year. They have experienced all the uncertainty of lockdown – some have lost family or friends – and then they faced further problems with their A level and BTEC results. Our students need us to return to normal as quickly as is safely possible.
Many courses have practical and team-based activities built in to them. Right across our provision, our expectation that students will develop the Hallmarks of a Portsmouth graduate requires face-to-face engagement with staff. If we can deliver face-to-face engagement safely, students are entitled to it.
The pandemic also caused the closure of university laboratories, studios and workshops, and brought much research to a standstill. Not only is our research important in itself and to the University, but its completion is vital to the many postgraduate research students whose future careers depend on the successful completion of their work.
In light of this, the central question on which all our planning has focused is this: can we make face-to-face teaching and all staff-student engagement as safe as any other activity that staff and students currently engage in as part of their day-to-day lives? We believe that the steps we have taken show that the answer to this question is yes.
Making the campus safe
We have established two testing sites on campus in partnership with the Department of Health and Social Care and Portsmouth Hospitals University NHS Trust. One is located in Eldon car park and is for staff, students and the wider community showing symptoms of Covid-19. The second site is in Milldam car park and is for asymptomatic staff and students.
Enhanced cleaning procedures
As we re-opened buildings over the summer, we implemented an enhanced cleaning regime with more frequent cleaning and sanitisation of key touch points. We have also reviewed ventilation room-by-room to ensure that no areas are provided with recirculated air: affected areas will now be provided fresh air circulation only, or, when necessary, they may be taken out of use.
Use of face-coverings
Where Government guidance mandates face-coverings, it has been and will be followed without exception. But the University is going beyond current Government guidance and require staff and students to wear face coverings in most settings on campus.
The only exceptions are where common sense shows that face-coverings are unnecessary – offices with single occupants, well ventilated spaces where it is clear that 2-metre distancing is possible, or in circumstances where an individual is exempt from wearing a face covering.
Classroom capacity reduced
To provide a socially distanced working and learning environment, the capacity of teaching and office spaces has been significantly reduced. All large-group teaching – by which we mean 30 or more students – will be delivered online.
Teaching activities such as practical classes, laboratory and studio work, tutorials, workshops and seminars will take place face-to-face but in smaller groups than usual. Every laboratory, workshop and studio space is being adapted, cleaned and equipped with appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) where required.
Detailed risk assessments have been completed for all our buildings and activities where necessary and any mitigating actions are being implemented. We will ensure that everyone – staff, students, contractors, agency staff, volunteers and anyone else affected by our business – are aware of their obligations to make themselves and others safe.
All staff will receive a welcome pack containing some essential safety supplies. This pack will include three washable face coverings. There will also be disposable face coverings available across campus – line managers will share information about local distribution arrangements.
We are encouraging all staff whose role does not require them to work on campus to continue to work from home where possible until the end of the calendar year. Where possible, we are also introducing greater flexibility around start and end times to individuals’ working days to help avoid peak times on public transport.
Many of the measures we have put in place will require individuals’ cooperation. We believe that the overwhelming majority of staff and students want to do their bit. The University’s role is to provide them with the information and support to help them.
To do this, we will be carrying out temperature scanning in a number of locations around the campus. There are hand-sanitiser points at entrance and key points in all university buildings and there are messages across campus reminding people about how to keep themselves and others safe. There are, for instance, clear reminders that social distancing rules apply in all university buildings.
We will also be funding a flu vaccination for any member of staff who would like one. This is in line with Government guidance and aims to reduce the chances of confusing flu symptoms with the symptoms of COVID-19.
We're going back on campus. Take a look at everything we're doing to make your return as easy and as safe as possible.
We will also provide support for students off-campus. In university-owned halls of residences, there will be enhanced cleaning of communal areas; we will provide cleaning materials and cleaning guidance so students can effectively clean between our own cleaning; sanitiser stations are established in key spots around buildings; and there will be limits on the number of people who can use lifts. Similar arrangements are in place in our third party partner providers’ halls of residence.
We are also putting in place additional support for our students, particularly those returning from abroad who may need to quarantine in line with Government guidance.
Clinically vulnerable staff and students
While these measures will make campus life safe for most staff and students, some will be ‘clinically vulnerable’ (as defined by the NHS). If the NHS guidance is that it is not safe for a particular individual to engage in face-to-face teaching, we will not expect them to. We will not put any staff in any unsafe working positions.
Current NHS guidance is that any clinically vulnerable staff should speak to their line managers to make any arrangements necessary to make them safe while they work. If this applies to a member of our staff, they need to speak to their line manager; if necessary, they will be referred to Occupational Health.
What if the guidance or situation on the ground changes?
We are continuously monitoring the safety of the campus. We are ready to adjust our plans if needed and will do so if it becomes unsafe to operate as we plan to.
We are in regular contact and are working closely with Portsmouth City Council, Public Health England, local NHS partners, and other key stakeholders. Should the situation in the City or on campus change, we will be able to respond rapidly. Our two testing facilities will have a vital role to play in this. They are an important resource for the University and City.
No-one can know what the next few months will hold for the University, City or indeed country, but we are ready for the new academic year. We will provide our students with the support and education they need in an environment that is safe for them and for you.
I'd like to thank our staff for their efforts over the last few months and for their ongoing hard work at such a difficult time.