Face coverings, vaccination, Screening Service30 September 2021
A shorter email than I would generally write in September, mainly because of the extra one in August and because, surprisingly, relatively little has changed since then. Just to update you on student numbers, as things have settled down we are beginning to see a clearer picture. The latest figures indicate that we are likely to be several hundred over target, but we will need to await the outcome of the postgraduate taught recruitment, which varies widely from School to School, as I am sure you are aware. The good news is that staff appointments in areas where there is particular pressure have been going well, and the other support arrangements I mentioned last time are proceeding apace too.
At the all-staff webinar we held towards the end of the month, there were some questions on our policy concerning the wearing of face coverings (masks). In my last email I said last time that they must be worn in publicly accessible areas of the University. I also want to be absolutely clear that masks must be worn in teaching settings, although they may be removed while speaking in order to aid understanding. Teachers may find this particularly useful. Everybody in the class should, however, wear a mask when not speaking unless they are exempt. Last year students complied very well with this requirement, and I would expect that to be the case again this year. Should there be cases where students are unwilling to comply, however, it is open to staff to ask them to leave, and, if necessary, to draw their attention to our Community Commitment. We will be displaying a prominent slide in classrooms reminding everybody of their obligations. Any student in breach of the Community Commitment can be reported accordingly. One would hope that such instances would be very rare, and that a pragmatic, co-operative approach would be the norm, but it is important to be clear about our stance on this.
Our most potent weapon against coronavirus, of course, is vaccination. We want to make it as easy as possible for everybody who wants to be vaccinated to do so, if they haven’t already. To that end we have worked with colleagues in the NHS and Public Health Wales to launch a pop-up vaccination centre in the Students’ Union, and students will be alerted to this option when they enrol. After enrollment the centre will move to Talybont in an effort to reach as many students as possible. Please take any opportunity you may have of informing students of this option, and I hope that together, we can encourage as many as possible to take it up.
Similarly, please encourage students to get tested regularly. They can get free tests from our Screening Service for staff and students who have no symptoms, and if as many staff and students as possible are tested once or twice a week, we will have earlier warning of any outbreaks and will be able to suppress them more easily. Now that things have opened up, other viruses are circulating and people may have minor symptoms (sniffles etc) that they would like to be checked via a PCR test. If that is the case, our Screening Service is set up so as to avoid any infection spreading and so can still be used.
We are maintaining our hygiene routines, and are ensuring that ventilation in university rooms complies with requirements from the Health and Safety Executive. Windows that have been painted shut for decades are being freed up so they can open, and mechanical ventilation is being set so as to ensure that plenty of fresh air is brought in.
We know that students are very keen to return to in-person teaching, and while some sessions may actually work better pedagogically when conducted via zoom or similar, the measures outlined above will place us in a strong position to do much more in-person teaching than was possible last year.
One final point: I have mentioned before our expertise in genomic surveillance, which is of national and international importance. It does mean that we are able to keep a close eye on any variants of concern, and thus far the domination of the delta variant seems to have ensured that other variants are unable to prevail. We should get early warning of any change, however, and in the meantime we can be confident that the combination of high vaccination levels (between 80 and 90% in our students and improving), regular testing, mask-wearing and other hygiene measures will provide a good level of community protection.
I want to finish by assuring you that your collective efforts are hugely appreciated. By working together we achieve the best possible outcomes for our students, who do deserve to enjoy university life as well as make great strides in their education. The opening of the Centre for Student Life is imminent (lectures will begin there on 4 October) and I think we will see our students making extensive use of all the facilities that are available there for socialising and social learning. Most of us thrive on personal interaction, and while it is very important to respect one another’s boundaries, I hope we can continue to make the best of the (much improved) position in which we now find ourselves. I want to thank you all for your commitment to our students, and wish everybody the best for the new academic year.
With best wishes