Robinson’s Academic and Pastoral Response to the Covid-19 Crisis

by Dr David Woodman, Senior Tutor, 21 April, 2020

On Friday 13 March, the very last day of the Lent term, it became clear at a meeting of Senior Tutors that the Covid-19 situation would be very serious. The complexity at that stage for the colleges was that the Government was not formally entering lockdown and the University was not formally shutting. What followed was an extremely difficult period of trying to encourage our students to return home if they could, while also being sympathetic and supportive of those who simply had to stay in College residence or for whom Robinson represented their primary home. This was made all the more difficult because the students themselves at this stage (understandably, given the lack of public announcement) did not understand the gravity of the situation. We prioritised those students whom we knew to be in the ‘at risk’ categories, calling them and making sure that they made arrangements to travel home as soon as they could, or to the place where they would feel most comfortable for the long term. In general, many students at this stage flagged difficulties with leaving College early for a variety of reasons, and this took careful discussion and understanding of each person’s situation. There were those who needed to remain and we were of course supportive of that.

In the ensuing week, it became a priority that our emergency logistics were in place in terms of supporting students left in College (with a reduced, and ever-reducing, staffing structure) and that we took a census so that we knew how many students were left and about any health vulnerabilities they might have. The initial census revealed about 70-80 students left in College accommodation, with more living privately in Cambridge. We asked students remaining in College to fill in the census daily. When it was clear this would not work, we reverted to sending an email asking students to update the Senior Tutor if their circumstances changed in any way, for example if they left College, developed Covid-19 symptoms, or needed to self-isolate. It proved very difficult, though, to keep on top of this situation.

As time went on, and the formal Government lockdown began, more students managed to travel home and we are now left with about 50-60 students in College accommodation. For those left in College, we developed an action plan based on a University model to deal with students who reported symptoms of illness. We also put in place plans to support students or households that needed to be isolated. The numbers of those in isolation peaked during one particular week at about 27. This caused huge logistical difficulties since supplies had to be regularly delivered to these students and careful protocols developed for doing so. Households and areas where there were communal spaces required careful instructions and guidance. This was taking place against a backdrop of only the minimum number of staff still in the College. The support of those in self-isolation required constant communication between all parties concerned (the Porters, Bursar, Nurse and Tutors, amongst others) and students were telephoned on a daily basis to make sure that they were OK.

During this period, there were difficult decisions to be made about the continued provision of facilities for our students, such as the continued operation of the Garden Restaurant. It was felt important to keep as many of these going as possible, even though we had to adapt our position in the light of ever-increasing requirements about social distancing from the Government. Decisions were taken under pressure and after discussion among the College Officers.

Supporting students pastorally

Very early in the crisis, and constantly throughout, we made students aware of the support groups that were available to them, including our usual pastoral team of the Tutors, Chaplain, Nurse and College-based Counsellor. A dedicated WhatsApp group was created so that students could receive instant information about questions and regular email updates were sent as the situation unfolded. Weekly Zoom meetings with the JCR and MCR were held so that any issues being raised by students could be addressed as quickly as possible.

About halfway through the Easter vacation the UCS made their services available online and our former Senior Tutor, Dr Liz Guild, generously made her services as a psychotherapist available to our remaining students. As Easter term begins, the importance of communication has been stressed to Directors of Studies and Tutors, who will be supporting our students.

Financial and other impacts for students

The early cessation of student life in Cambridge and the lockdown caused a number of complexities for our students. Many of these have been financial, from the booking and rebooking of expensive flights, to dealing with the costs of rent/storage etc. These were very pressured times and the College quickly exhausted the limited hardship funds at its disposal.

We advertised to all of our students the University funds available to them. With significant help from our Financial Tutor, those applications that came in were properly discussed and evaluated before being sent to the University for consideration. The University’s own hardship funds are now reaching their limit in terms of spending and fewer applications are now successful. Various students had very complex individual pastoral situations, which required careful discussion and thought with the Tutors concerned.

Academic impact

Students have throughout the crisis been very concerned by the impact on their studies. This was particularly acute in the period before the University announced its formal position on how assessments would function this year. Given that all the usual means of assessment have been completely rethought, there have been many queries coming in to the tutorial office about the situation, all of which have been dealt with in a timely fashion. There remain many unknowns, though, and the University’s position on various issues continues to evolve and needs careful monitoring. One major difficulty here has been, and will continue to be, helping students who are now left in less than ideal situations for academic study. That could be an issue of lack of space to study at home, or it could be related to a lack of necessary IT equipment to deal with online teaching and assessment.

The College sent a survey to all its undergraduate and one-year postgraduate taught masters students to discern where there are problems. Directors of Studies have been asked to follow up with students who have flagged issues, to see if anything can be done to help. As Easter term begins, we are all having to get used to new forms of teaching, online meetings, and new modes of assessment. This will bring numerous challenges for us all and will need constant revision. Students have been regularly updated about all of the University’s online resources available (from libraries and departments) and about their online Covid-19 FAQ site, which has extremely useful information. One issue has been the need for clear communication with students about the new methods of assessment.

Directors of Studies and Tutors have been fully kept up to date with developments and changes. Resources—particularly in terms of books and articles not available online—will be a major issue over the coming term. The University Library has been moving a lot of its material online. Students have been sent all of the relevant information about different resources available to them.

Graduation

Another major effect of the crisis has been the indefinite postponement of General Admission. We have been discussing this with students and offering reassurance that the College will do something appropriate to mark their achievements when it is safe to do so. Queries have also been sent to the University to inquire whether alternative arrangements have been made at the University level.

Admissions

The crisis, and attendant cancellation of public examinations across the world, has clearly caused a huge degree of uncertainty with regard to admissions and a University task force has been established to investigate the likely effects. We will have to wait to see how things evolve with regard to admissions. We have had to cancel upcoming admissions events, such as the July Open Days and our residentials, and our Admissions Tutors are looking into any sessions that might be deliverable online.

Ongoing work and next year

Discussions with the JCR and MCR have been extremely productive. Our students have come up with a number of ways of keeping the Robinson student community together during these difficult times, including the creation of a Robinson blanket, an online art exhibition, a baking competition for those still in College and online yoga sessions. It has been wonderful to see these kinds of creative ideas. DoS have been encouraged to think of ways of maintaining a feeling of cohesion over the coming term for students in their subjects. We would like to continue our MCR lunchtime seminars this term as a means of keeping the College community in contact with each other. This could be made available to all members of College (technology permitting).

It is too early to say what the situation will be in October, but it is important for us to plan for the possibility that teaching may continue online, at least for Michaelmas term. Most of this will be guided by what Departments and Faculties are doing, and we have already had preliminary discussions with the JCR to suggest that they think about what a ‘virtual Freshers’ Week’ could entail. We will of course be closely monitoring what the University suggests over the coming months.

Gratitude

As will be clear from the above, it has been an Easter like no other. The College is profoundly grateful to all of those who have helped overcome the manifold obstacles encountered. Our Porters, Bursars, Nurse, those in Catering and Housekeeping have been heroic in making sure that those students left in College have been properly supported and that the normal College operations continue as far as possible. Our IT department provided emergency and critical support at different moments. The JCR and MCR were steadfast in their help. Two students in particular helped coordinate the support of those in self-isolation, and I am sure there are others who also helped about whom we are currently unaware. We hope to formally recognise their contributions at some point.