Our people are key to a successful academic year ahead

The Michaelmas Coordination Group (MCG) has been given the task, by the University Council and the emergency Silver and Bronze groups, of overseeing preparations for next academic year, so that we can resume teaching and research in as full a way as possible. As co-chairs, we have the privilege and pleasure of working with senior medics and representatives from the Colleges, Divisions, Libraries, Estates, Academic Services and Oxford SU. 

We all understand how vital it is that our staff, academic and professional, throughout the University and the Colleges, feel confident that they are able to return to work safely and feel supported as we begin the new academic year. Health considerations are the bedrock on which all our planning rests and it is informed by an expert advisory group made up of Oxford clinical academics that report to the Silver Group.

Arrangements for the next academic year

Last week we communicated with our students and offer holders, informing them of plans for Michaelmas term.  We confirmed that all students will be welcomed from the start of their course – with Colleges open and firm commitments to keeping students and staff safe and well. A dedicated, rapid and centrally located University testing service will be available to all staff as well as students, and there will be measures in place which will include the effective and consistent use of face coverings, social distancing and other hygiene measures. The testing service will be crucial for the health and confidence of our community, especially the most vulnerable, and further information will be available in the near future.  It is also a critical part of the scenario planning that we must consider so that we are prepared for a potential spike in the virus.  

Reopening the University and continuing our teaching and world class research during a global pandemic is vastly complex – particularly at a collegiate University.  Since we began our work a month ago, the challenges of coordination and planning for next term have become more defined.  There are many interdependent issues that have to be considered, with Divisions, Departments and Colleges inextricably linked.

For example, we can only welcome back our students if we can be sure that they will have accommodation, so a huge amount of work has been done within the Conference of Colleges, working with our health experts, to assess how best we can accommodate students.

We are very mindful of the fact that a large part of the close but socially distanced contact with and between students will be in Colleges.  It is therefore imperative that we consider the specific needs of Tutors, Porters, Scouts, people working in the kitchens and the pantries and that those working in welfare are taken care of.  We are looking at ways of ensuring that students act responsibly to safeguard the well-being of the whole College community.  This is one of the issues that is being looked at by the new Student Experience Coordination Group along with student support services and extra-curricular activities.

Detailed planning

Following extensive consultation, the PVC for Education has provided all Departments and Faculties with the planning parameters for Department-based teaching, recognising the need for a flexible and devolved approach to the proposed combination of face-to-face and online teaching.  Given the need for teaching space (both in terms of physical space and time), Departments will shortly be asked to give a formal assessment of their space requirements.  We have established a joint Teaching Space Coordination Group which is rapidly identifying and assessing teaching space in the University and Colleges for use in Michaelmas term, in line with social distancing guidelines, whilst liaising with Estates to identify any additional venues/spaces that could be used.  The Bodleian Libraries have already made huge strides in planning for re-opening when permitted to do so.  Another group, the Laboratory Teaching Working Party has also been set up to ensure we can make safe and effective use of labs.

The Return to On-site Working project has started the process of reopening labs and is making great progress.  Much of its work dovetails with the return of staff and students to Colleges, and expertise is shared: for example, requirements for restarting activity safely, travel to work and procurement.   

Support for our people

We are all fully aware that many staff have a range of health vulnerabilities and concerns about travelling and returning to work.  Any member of staff who has concerns about the risks will have the option of a discussion with their Head of Department, manager or relevant College senior staff member about their particular circumstances and concerns.  Detailed guidance will be developed by the PVC People and GLAM, in consultation with HR, and the Unions. 

We are also acutely aware of the pressures that colleagues are already under and the implications for staff workloads. Online working at home brings particular pressures of its own, and we have yet to understand fully what it will mean to combine online and in-person working in our different domains.  This is something that will be addressed as a priority, and we will explore ways of supporting staff further in the weeks ahead as we work through the detail.   All members of staff, whether academic, professional or support, have more than one life, having to juggle a work life – often including a range of University and College responsibilities - and a home life. 

We can only have confidence in a successful start to the academic year by acting in a joined-up way across our Departments and Colleges – and a huge amount of work is taking place.  And we will plan to respond flexibly to changing phases of the pandemic.  This planning is complex, and there are still more questions than answers, but by working together we are confident that we will be able to support our staff in both our Colleges and Departments and ensure the highest quality education and research despite the ongoing pandemic.

Professor Karen O'Brien and Jan Royall

Professor Karen O'Brien, Head of the Humanities Division and Jan Royall, Principal of Somerville College (left to right)