COVID-19 Update: Vice-Chancellor’s Communique – Wednesday March 18, 2020
On this occasion I am writing to all staff and students to provide an update on our position with respect to the evolving coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.
My first comment would be to congratulate the efforts all of staff in leaning in to support the University develop and manage appropriate responses to what is a challenging and rapidly shifting problem. I am not unaware of the varying levels of justifiable anxiety across our campuses.
Many staff have relatives and friends who have been affected by the international travel constraints. Some staff and students have already self-isolated against the potential risk of infection. We can all be relieved that for now no positive results have been reported in our community.
Our initial priority has been to focus on prevention and containment measures. The promotion of enhanced personal hygiene practices and adherence to the social distancing recommendations from Government Medical Advisors must be a key part of our first line of defence.
We have limited all travel, with a complete restriction on international travel and a requirement to seek approval for essential domestic travel. Non-essential travel will not be approved.
In view of the upgraded advice from Government, we have this week cancelled or postponed all non-essential events across all of our campuses and those we sponsor in the community. We are actively encouraging the use of virtual meeting rooms where possible in preference to physical gatherings. IT are updating their advice around the use of Zoom and we are also increasing the number of available laptop devices to support work at home options going forward.
All key service departments (e.g. IT, HR, Finance) are refining their business continuity plans for flexible and reduced attendance on site. We have increased building cleaning service provisions and only closed food options will be available across all campuses, including the residential colleges. It will take a few days for all these options to be developed to a full and effective level, however please be assured that the Special Incident Group, of which I Chair, are reviewing these matters on a daily basis.
Clearly the issue of how fast and at what level the COVID-19 epidemic will spread across Australia remains unknown. All advice speaks to that fact that prevention and containment will serve us best, and we are following these directions. As noted above, several staff and students have self-isolated, taken medical advice and been tested. We have no reports on infection. All staff and students must consider and make sensible decisions around managing both their own health care and levels of anxiety and safety, and in supporting colleagues, family and friends.
We are working to maintain a functional managed response; not business as usual but a considered approach to supporting and sustaining our staff and students over an extended period.
All academic programmes are still running and will continue to do so. Where possible, we are deferring or postponing specific academic activities which normally require large gatherings of students and/or travel. This means intensives have been cancelled; both staff and student cohorts will receive specific advice on alternate arrangements. We will move all provision to online mode over the next few weeks in an orderly manner with key notices being issued by each programme as required. Our Faculty leads and Learning and Teaching Transformation team are working through the mechanics of this process in a systematic way and advice will be forthcoming over the next week or so.
We are focusing on an orderly transition which has been vetted through relevant quality assurance processes so that we do not in any way diminish the student experience or compromise the quality of what we do. My aim is to ensure no student is disadvantaged by the process of required change in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Here I acknowledge the amazing work that academic unit coordinators are undertaking as they manage not only the academic planning process but the added challenge of addressing student anxiety and reassuring our community that we are doing all possible to engage in a model which ensures continuity and opportunity. We have successfully transitioned our in-bound Chinese students to a fully online programme of study last month and have maintained all support facilities.
I would also acknowledge the work being done by student support teams across the Colleges, by the students who are taking a pragmatic approach to the disruption of their normal college and academic life, and to the great number of shared experiences that our online students are bringing to the table. There is a strong sense of community support emerging from this and embracing all.
The UNE Special Incident Group widely acknowledges and applauds the efforts being made across our community. The challenges of prevention and containment are not trivial and we are currently focused on a number of ‘all of campus’ staff scenarios which will serve us now and going forward. These include:
- Making arrangements for on-campus functions to operate through a diminished attendance model.
- Initiate good practice models for ‘alternate day’ attendance and working from home scenarios.
- Working models to support Casual Staff affected by COVID-19 institutional decisions.
Over the next fortnight we will deep test these scenarios and others, and determine the best working model for each work unit or service domain.
In all of this we are seeking to maintain a safe working environment for all, and to operate in a manner which supports our 26,000 plus students, thus enabling them and our partners to operate effectively in a safe and appropriate environment.
I am confident that by working methodically through each scenario and strengthening our emergency planning framework, UNE can continue to operate as an educational hub, delivering a quality education experience and providing community leadership during these very difficult times.
To close, I again acknowledge and applaud the adaptive resilience and good humour of my work colleagues and our students at a time of great challenge. Please track messages being posted on UNE’s website and stay in ‘close’ (but appropriate!) contact.
Professor Brigid Heywood
Vice Chancellor & CEO