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November 12th, 2020:

Correspondence with management regarding in-person teaching, and return home of students

Email received from Richard Middleton, Chief Operating Officer, Mon 16/11/2020 12:32

Dear Southampton UCU Executive Committee,

Thank you for your email of 12th November, which was discussed at UEB this morning.

As I explained in my email of 3rd November and at our subsequent meeting on 6th November, the decisions we are making, and are regularly reviewing, are governed by a range of factors. These include the clear guidelines and instructions we are given by Government and in particular by the Department for Education, and also the context of our own local situation, informed by our near daily contact with the Director of Public Health for Southampton City Council and with Public Health England. We are also in very regular contact with the local Health Protection Board, the Director of Public Health for Hampshire County Council, and Hampshire Police. Our decisions are not made unilaterally, or in isolation.

The Government has now set out very clearly the criteria for ensuring the safe return home of students for the winter break: In order to ensure that students can be home at the end of the winter term and also reduce any transmission risk, the Government is asking that students return home once the national restrictions have been lifted, in a “student travel window” lasting from 3-9 December. It is obviously critical that universities follow these requirements consistently.

As a result, and following discussions with our local public health bodies, we are making clear to students today that teaching will move online from 9th December. Students will be advised that they should return home from the University after their last timetabled on-campus and in-person teaching within the period 3rd-9th December. This will enable us to stagger the leave dates of students as required by Government.

In addition, students are being encouraged to take part in our well-established Southampton COVID-19 saliva testing programme, if they aren’t doing so already. We will be advising students to take two tests: one 10 to 11 days before they plan to travel, and another 2 to 3 days before they intend to travel.  Those who test positive will of course be required to isolate following NHS guidance, and the University will provide support for them, as it has been doing in such cases.

We will continue to work closely with our local public health colleagues and with the wider City to ensure that we meet our obligations relating to the end of term. This includes liaising with other local universities and with travel providers.

In addition, we will obviously need to assess, in discussion with local public health bodies, the implications – if any – of any continuing local restrictions put in place following the end of the England-wide lockdown on 2 December.

Taken together, this package of actions means that we do not see a case for ending face-to-face teaching earlier than has been identified by the Department for Education.

We already have in place a mechanism for individual members of staff to raise with line managers any concerns they may have about their personal circumstances.

At present there has been no formal communication from Government about expectations of universities or students in the New Year. Our teaching will resume on 4 January, and we are currently expecting this will include some campus delivery. The precise blend of this will be determined by the prevailing Government guidelines and the advice of our local public health bodies. We will continue to provide a COVID-secure campus environment for all of our staff and students, and we will continue to offer, as we have this term, asymptomatic testing to students and eligible staff.

Kind regards,

Richard Middleton

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Email sent by UCU on 12/11/2020 to Richard Middleton Chief Operating Officer, Alex Neill Vice President Education, and Kieron Broadhead Exec Director Student Experience

Dear Richard 

In a well-attended branch General Meeting held on the 11th November, we consulted our members regarding the continuation of in-person teaching during lockdown and the recent government guidance on getting students home for Christmas.  During the meeting, the branch consulted with members on the following points:  

1: While fully accepting that some students may choose or need to stay in their University accommodation up to and even including the Christmas period, UCU believes that the University has a responsibility to ensure that those students who wish to leave can do so safely and as soon as possible. In order to facilitate this and reduce the risk of infections, which are climbing steadily in Southampton, a significant majority of members indicated they supported ceasing in-person teaching by November 16th. This date would allow students 2 weeks to self-isolate before returning home at the beginning of December. A later end to in-person teaching risks students who have tested positive being stranded in halls or private accommodation without essential familial and social support networks well into the Christmas vacation period. 

2: The Christmas vacation period is likely to involve students visiting areas of the country with high levels of transmission during a period traditionally characterised by social mixing. Members shared concerns that asking students to return to Southampton en masse in January would risk increased spread of the virus across the country and our community. January and February are also amongst the most pressured months for the NHS. Responding to these facts, a significant majority of members voted to request the University reduce the amount of in-person teaching between January and March. This will help keep the infection rate in Southampton and surrounding communities low. We note that Independent Sage has recommended that Universities offer students the choice of where to study in January and February for the same reasons and ask the University to seriously consider their recommendations.  

3: In the course of the meeting it also became clear that a great many of our members are concerned about the levels of autonomy they have in deciding what is essential, or most appropriate, for their teaching. Many members wish to determine for themselves how much in-person teaching is pedagogically essential, and to make decisions based on their individual circumstances rather than solely on the risk factors outlined by University policy, or blanket requirements for specified amounts of in-person teaching per module. We recall asking for this to be considered in the COO meeting on the 6th November and note that this was refused.  

In light of clear member concerns on this issue, we would like you to reconsider. Anxiety around in-person teaching is having a detrimental effect on the health and wellbeing of staff. We note that you have pointed out that universities should not be driven by a ‘one size fits all’ policy and that decisions need to be made by individual institutions based on the local environment. We ask that the same flexibility is offered to staff, many of whom have genuine concerns about in-person teaching, and the risks associated with commuting on public transport in order to deliver such teaching. It is very clear from our consultations with our members that adopting a more individual approach would not lead to an end to in-person teaching; many staff wish to continue to come to Campus and have the means to do so safely during this pandemic. For staff who must travel long distances on public transport, or have vulnerable family members, and for those whose mental health is suffering as a result of pressure to commute or work in environments they consider unsafe, the freedom to decide how to best fulfil their responsibilities and duties would do much to repair trust and boost morale.    

We remind you that our branch position, reached at the General Meeting on 15th September, has not changed and again draw your attention to the motion which was passed in that same meeting. We continue to oppose unnecessary in-person teaching, putting the safety and wellbeing of our members first. We understand that the University does not wish to move from its position of offering blended delivery. Nevertheless, we ask you to share our members’ views with UEB and request 1) a more flexible approach in determining when in-person teaching is needed; 2) for UEB to end in-person teaching wherever possible by 16 November to enable students to go home on 2nd December without compromising the safety of their families and communities; 3) for UEB to help reduce pressure on the NHS and protect our Southampton community by reducing in-person teaching where possible during the Jan-March period. 

In the interests of transparency, we will share this correspondence with members. We look forward to receiving your response. 

Southampton UCU executive committee