We’re working to keep students safe – and ensure they can still have a true Cambridge experience
Graham Virgo is Senior Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Education and Professor of English Private Law.
In this very challenging year, we have been delighted to welcome students – including a much larger than usual first-year intake – to Cambridge. Keeping students and staff safe has been our top priority, but we are also working to ensure our students have, as much as is possible, a true Cambridge experience.
Teaching is, of course, an integral part of this. Very early on we agreed that, in the light of the rules about social distancing, large lectures could not be delivered in person. Making that decision back in May gave us time to prepare, and prepare well, for lectures to be recorded. We have set up some lecture theatres as studios to enable high-quality recording of lectures and have provided a great deal of training and technical support to staff. I have already recorded six of my own lectures, which has been a great learning experience!
Where it is possible to practice social distancing, teaching is in person; and where it is not (for example, where staff are shielding) we are using platforms such as Microsoft Teams.
Practical work that must be done in person, such as for engineering, science, medicine and veterinary science, is taking place in very small, two-metre socially distanced groups.
We are monitoring this rapidly changing situation day by day, and we are ready and able to pivot to online teaching only, if circumstances demand it.
Colleges are showing great imagination in adapting their offerings and finding ways for students to meet and socialise safely. I have seen socially distanced matriculation photos taken from above using drones. Large dinners have been replaced by smaller groups. Some sporting activities are still able to go ahead. We are very aware of the pandemic’s potential impact on mental health, and this is where the Collegiate system is of great benefit. Each student has a tutor in their College, and access to the University’s counselling service, which is now providing a lot of support online.
Testing is, of course, incredibly important. Any student or staff member who has symptoms can get tested at Addenbrooke’s or at the Department of Engineering’s dedicated pod. But, as you would expect from Cambridge, we are eager to innovate. We don’t have the capacity to test every single asymptomatic student every week – so, instead, we test households in Colleges.
Each household is around eight students in College accommodation. Two students from each household sign up. The two swabs are put in a tube together, sent to the Anne McLaren Building on the Cambridge Biomedical Campus for testing, and the results come back within 24 hours. If they come back positive, only then will the entire household be tested. This means we only have to test 450 samples to survey around 15,000 students.
Our Colleges have gone the extra mile to minimise health risk to staff and students. We are working very closely with local health authorities, local councils and Public Heath England. Our Stay Safe Cambridge Uni public health campaign has a dedicated website and is very active in pushing out its messages on social media.
All this could not be possible without the incredibly hard work of staff behind the scenes, and the co-operation of our students. We are determined to continue providing the best possible Cambridge education and experience. It might be different – but the Cambridge experience is very much in evidence!