Chris Oldham our Director of Estates and Campus Services talks about our approach to supporting campus life during the pandemic.
It is hard to believe it is nearly a year since the first cases of COVID-19 were identified in the UK, and since then we have been working diligently to ensure the health and wellbeing of our students, staff and the wider community. This has meant developing new ways of managing our campuses within changing government guidance – and trying to do our best to minimise the impact of restrictions on student and campus life. I’d like to share some of the things we’ve done.
We know that the pandemic has hit many of our students financially. From the outset of the pandemic, we wanted to prioritise being as supportive and as flexible as possible, in recognising the impact of the pandemic on our students in University owned and managed accommodation. During the first lockdown, we immediately offered accommodation refunds to provide the opportunity for students who wished to go home without being held to their rental payments. We have also offered no-cost flexibility to students, enabling them to move into or out of University owned or managed accommodation, irrespective of whether teaching was on-line or in person. We have again ensured no financial detriment for students in University owned and managed accommodation who left their accommodation as a result of the government winter break travel window. Working closely with the SU, we have also consistently urged off-campus student accommodation and private providers to be flexible too. The cost to the University of this flexibility in the Autumn Term has been £3.6 million, but we continue to feel this is an important way in which we can support Essex students.
We’ve also tackled the challenge of creating COVID secure campuses head on, with signage, enhanced cleaning and additional security. We’ve ensured study and teaching areas continue to be available to support student learning – and adapted them in line with Government guidance and the way COVID has evolved. We have also helped minimise the need for contact by providing a range of delivered catering options and worked with supermarkets to enhance their food delivery arrangements to minimise the need for students to go to supermarkets in person. For students on our campuses, we have also put in place our own test, trace and isolate system. This has cost £1 million and led to us administering 10,000 tests. As part of a wide range of COVID measures, it has helped keep infection rates at the University very low. Our live dashboard continues to provide the very latest data: www.essex.ac.uk/covid-19/dashboard
We have really focused on our support for quarantining and self-isolating students, making sure they are getting essential services like bedding, kitchen and food packs when they have arrived on campus, as well as a range of wellbeing support activities. We further reviewed pricing for our food delivery packages, in order to provide the best value and affordable offering. Working with the Students’ union, we know the serious impact the pandemic has had on mental health and well-being of students. Our Student Wellbeing and Inclusivity Service has been on hand all the way through, available both in-person when appropriate and online, providing help, support, advice and guidance. We have increased the funds available to support students in financial hardship this year, from an original budget of £188,000 to a revised level of £430,000. This has been the major focus of our fundraising efforts over the last year and our alumni and friends have been truly amazing in their support for Essex students. In addition, the range of needs that the fund can assist with has been expanded, now including support with access to technology, with unexpected travel or accommodation costs and help with child-care costs.
We have put on a programme of virtual events and activities. We have worked hand in hand with the Student Union to ensure a wide and varied range of activities. Online events including an escape room, murder mystery adventure, quizzes and a performance by award-winning magicians. We have increased the funding so that the SU can provide extra support for students learning on-line and on our campuses, so that our students can have the best Essex student experience we can provide.
With so few students on our campuses over the last 9 months, there is no doubt our University is and feels a very different place. But we are all looking forward to welcoming all our students back to our campuses, as soon as we can do so safely. Until then, we will continue to work to make campus life safe and supportive for as long as it takes to get us all through the pandemic together.
Director of Estates and Campus Services