members news people-and-places

WC2 members reflect on the effects of Covid-19

What immediate changes has your institution made as a result of the Covid 19 pandemic eg on how teaching takes place, staff working, student welfare?
Ryerson University, UAM (Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana), RMIT (Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology) and City, University of London all described a dramatic pivot in the delivery of their education provision and the working patterns of their staff as the pandemic spread and it became unsafe to work and study in normally crowded campus sites. Aside from essential building maintenance and security all WC2 members closed their campus’ down almost overnight and students and staff alike adapted to a virtual work environment. Academic staff were compelled to get creative with technology to deliver courses online, a process which is continuing into the 2020-21 academic year. UAM set up a dedicated support platform known as PEER (Programa Emergente de Enseñanza Remota) where infographics and tutorials were uploaded to assist staff in transitioning to a fully online format.

At the time of writing the state of Victoria is experiencing a resurgence of Covid -19 and Melbourne is under a strict lockdown. This pattern of flux may become the norm as cities adapt to contain local resurgences.

With international travel constrained all mobility programmes ground to a halt and WC2’s doctoral mobility fund and research seed fund remain on hold until the environment for international travel becomes more stable.

Many members recognised the financial struggle that their students are enduring because of the virus. Ryerson launched a Student Relief Fund which generated $3 million in support, and provided 4,000 students with barrier-free access to $750 each. In addition, several departments and faculties distributed an additional $2 million in bursaries for students. UAM supported students on a low income with tablets and cellular data to facilitate the move to remote working. And RMIT’s Student Hardship Assistance and Relief Funds were expanded to provide $15 million in immediate, additional support for international and domestic students impacted by Covid-19.

Several members responded at a societal or even a global level to efforts to address the pandemic. USP, which owns two hospitals and runs another two, accounting for 3,000 beds, adapted, in a two week period, to admit Covid-19 patients in isolated wards. Their science faculty set up 5 diagnostic centres, capable of performing 1,500 tests for the virus per day. In addition, almost 200 research groups at USP are carrying out research work related to Covid-19, focusing on the development of vaccines, low-cost clinical ventilators, viral genome sequencing and lab reproduction of the virus.

Hundreds of nursing and midwifery students from City, University of London, in their final or second year of study, elected to undertake extended clinical placements within the National Health Service. City’s academics are also conducting vital research to support economic and social recovery, as well as insight into the long-term impacts of Covid-19 such as how it will change the face of general medical practice, whether it will be a turning point for globalisation and the impact of the virus on the mental health of the UK population.

How long do you expect and plan for these changes to last?
All members continue to put the safety, health and well-being of their students and staff first City, University of London is planning a phased return of its staff to a ‘Covid- secure’ campus from September based on student support needs. Ryerson has announced that remote work will continue until at least January 2021 at which point there will be a gradual return to campus. And at UAM the changes will continue into the next academic term and it is unlikely that there will be a full time return to previous delivery modes, with elements of blended teaching becoming a permanent feature.

How are you maintaining staff morale during this period?
Members are focused on the wellbeing of their staff and have been offering a range support services. For example, Ryerson has introduced “Ryerson Recharge”, a series of practices to support employees and maintain staff morale. These include:
● Meetings conclude by 6pm to set boundaries between work and home
● Book meetings in 50 minutes or less to allow built-in breaks between meetings
● No evenings or weekends emails unless urgent and encouraging the use of a “schedule send” feature for non-urgent emails
● Meeting-Free Fridays for the remainder of the summer to allow time for focused work
● An extra Vacation Day in the summer

Many members have introduced a suite of virtual workshops focused on a well-being, work-life balance and adapting to a virtual environment. And at UAM a helpline was set up to address queries ranging from psychological, labour information to important dates.


How has your city been affected to date by the Covid 19 pandemic?

All cities where WC2 members are based have suffered infection rates and deaths due to the pandemic, and while the overall situation in North America and Europe looks to be improving, concerns about localised resurgences, the recent lockdown in Melbourne and the continuing ‘tsunami’ described by Roberta in Sao Paulo are reminders that the retreat of the virus does not follow a linear trajectory.

In Mexico City, the location of UAM, the situation remains precarious. The city has a huge population of close to 22 million, approximately half of the population are below the poverty line and must leave home to look for daily sustenance, meaning that lockdown and social distancing are precautions they cannot afford to take. Compounding the situation, it took nearly two months to repair poorly constructed hospitals and to provide ventilators. On top of this a huge proportion of the population are overweight, diabetic and have high blood pressure – co-morbidities for Covid-19 complications. Many of UAM’s students come from working-class families with limited access to internet and technology, where these co-morbidities are prevalent.

Do you think the pandemic will have a lasting effect on the economy, society and environment of your city?
Ryerson, UAM and City, University of London all agreed that there will long term impacts on their economy and society, with questions only about the scale of the recession. Ryerson has established a number of working groups to undertake scenario planning, back to work planning, public health and safety, and to assess opportunities caused by the disruption of Covid-19. These groups are focused on strategic planning, managing change and positioning Ryerson for longer-term strategic success.

In London and elsewhere there are concerns about how the flight to home working will affect the economy of the centre of the City, with many offices standing empty and shops, restaurants and cafes seeing a dramatic drop in custom normally provided by office workers. There are concerns about this sudden reduction in demand and social distancing requirements will mean in the longer term for property prices, nightlife, cultural life and the transport system, which is on the brink of bankruptcy with dramatic reductions in the use of the network.

Are there any other Covid-19 responses that you would like to highlight?
Ryerson is currently looking to realise one of its core commitments – namely, to make Ryerson programs more accessible to students globally. Ryerson is continuing to explore opportunities and partnerships to enable them to take their exceptional programs to international student markets. This is in addition to ensuring that Ryerson continues to attract and welcome students from around the world.

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