Amid a Covid cases increase, here’s what R means to us

Newcastle Vice Chancellor Chris Day describes his university's response to the rise in Covid cases seen in the region and across the UK.

Six months ago, as part of a Covid-19 Q&A, I remember being asked by a student to explain the meaning of “R”.

At the time, this elusive letter was still a mystery to most of us, but since then, the “R” value has become an uneasy part of our day-to-day language as we watch it slowly rise and fall and discuss the implications these seemingly miniscule changes in value will have on all our lives.

But over the last few days, “R” has taken on a whole new meaning for us here in Newcastle.

1. The restrictive R

Last Thursday, the Government announced new measures for the North East of England in the wake of a rising number of positive cases of coronavirus.

We are not the first University to be impacted in this way, of course, Manchester, Birmingham and Leicester have all experienced some level of lockdown over the past few months and now Liverpool and Lancaster among others are grappling with what enhanced local restrictions mean in the short term for our communities of colleagues and students.

But the timing of these restrictions – so close to the return of the majority of our students to the city – has had a much greater impact on us.

2. The robust R

Like all universities, and in line with recent DfE guidance, we have robust, clear measures in place to reduce the risk of infection spreading on our campus, in our halls of residence and in the community.

We are taking a blended approach to teaching and learning, we have a track and trace system in place, and our students will be asked to sign up to a new Respect contract that lays out the rules and responsibilities we expect of them.

And on Thursday, we discussed our draft Outbreak Response Plan at the Newcastle City Futures Board which oversees the City’s Covid Control Plan and includes colleagues from the City Council, Northumbria University and the Director of Public Health.

3. The Responsive and Responsible R

On Friday – a week before the majority of our students even arrive in Newcastle – our Gold Group took the decision to move from Tier 1 to Tier 2 as defined by the Department for Education in their recently published guidance.

This means we will continue to operate a Covid-secure campus to support the ongoing return of colleagues and students to our campus but that we will move to an increased level of online learning where possible, prioritising present-in-person teaching for those courses where it is most beneficial.

It’s not a decision we took lightly; but our close collaboration with the city and public health officials meant we could respond quickly and responsibly to the changing situation and in the best interests of everyone, colleagues, students and our local community.

Escalating our position in this considered way will give us the ability to be more flexible about what we can offer in person on campus, and as the situation develops both locally and nationally, we will re-assess this position on at least a weekly basis.

4. The Resilient R

This week brings a new challenge for us. While our medical and dentistry students are already here, the majority of our students will return to the city at the weekend. This is a group of largely young people whose education has been hugely disrupted by the pandemic and we owe it to them, if at all possible, to provide the support, learning, experience and opportunity of a University education.

Through our Education Resilience Framework and Student Experience Resilience Framework, we are ensuring that whatever happens over the coming weeks and months our students can continue to learn. And together with our Students’ Union we are still working towards safe, physically-distanced, managed social activities on campus and in halls giving students a really positive and controlled way to socialise and connect safely.

Alongside this, we introduced new measures to make sure our students understand the new restrictions. We have updated our Student Declaration/Contract so that all students agree to follow the reasonable measures in place to prevent the spread of Covid and to report symptoms promptly.

We’ve expanded our “Operation Oak” for the whole of semester one – a scheme where we and Northumbria University fund extra police presence in residential areas with high student density. We have employed campus helpers to provide guidance and ensure that students follow the rules and produced new Student Induction material on safety and wellbeing that will feed into the wider messaging across campus, in student accommodation and online.

5. The Reassuring R

The biggest challenge for all of us working in university management teams, of course, is providing reassurance.

To our students, that our campus is open and that we have been working hard all summer to ensure the plans and systems are in place so they receive the education and experience they deserve, albeit different to that which was planned.

To our colleagues, that we are in a strong position due to the pro-active measures we have taken to make our campus as Covid-19 secure as possible but also that we are acutely aware that these local restrictions will have implications for all of us in terms of family, caring and other responsibilities.

And to our community, that while the return of so many young people to our city poses an undoubted challenge, together with our Students’ Union and city partners we are working to ensure their safe return for everyone.

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