Message from the Vice-Chancellor on Teaching Free Week and possible campus closure

Friday 20 March: Message from the Vice-Chancellor Professor Dawn Freshwater to all staff.

Kia ora koutou

Further to my all-staff email earlier this week, I am writing today with an update on how continued developments around COVID-19 are likely to impact the University, and to outline a way in which I believe we might best be able to prepare for a number of scenarios.

The Strategic Response Team has been systematically thinking through a complex range of issues and modelling options that will enable our campus community to continue to deliver and experience the world class education and research experience to which the University of Auckland aspires.

Teaching Free Week

Firstly, I can confirm that next week (23 to 27 March) will be designated a Teaching Free Week, in which teaching across the University will be suspended. Students who usually attend classes will not be required to come into campus, but are free to do so if they wish. This arrangement applies to all of our campuses, but not to teaching for students on placement or practicum which will continue as planned, or to research students.

In-class tests scheduled for next week will be postponed and replaced by off-campus assessment exercises. Students will be notified of the form and timing of these exercises as soon as possible.

All student services will remain open and operate on standard hours, including libraries, Kate Edger Information Commons, AskAuckland Central, Recreation Centre, retail outlets, as well as all our student accommodation.

The purpose of the Teaching Free Week is to allow our staff to focus on completing their plans and preparations for remote teaching in the event of a partial campus closure in response to COVID-19 (see below). This work will ensure that all of our students have the best possible learning experience, albeit perhaps in alternative formats. I also understand that staff would prefer to make an orderly transition to online delivery, if this is to be at scale for any length of time.

It will also allow students to prepare for digital learning via online tools. There will be a range of on-campus support available to help students next week, including support guides and drop-in clinics.

The intention is for the University to be able to be in full digital teaching and learning mode from the following week (30 March) onwards if required. Semester 1 will be extended by one week to account for the break, meaning that Semester 2 timing may also shift slightly.

We do require all staff who are involved in teaching to be on campus next week to work with their faculty teams to develop their teaching plans and to prepare for remote teaching.

Preparations for possible campus closure

You will have seen reports from overseas of schools and universities having to close to help contain the spread of COVID-19. This is a very real possibility for New Zealand, particularly as the prospect of community transmission of the virus becomes more likely, if not inevitable. This was discussed by the Vice-Chancellors at a Universities New Zealand meeting earlier today.

We are therefore preparing for a scenario in which we would need to continue to teach our students while they are unable to come onto our campuses. We would do that by deploying a range of remote learning technologies and practices for students. It is envisaged, at this point, that staff would continue to work as normal on campus.

The University is well advanced in its contingency planning for this and other possibilities. Our teaching staff and support services have already responded brilliantly in recent weeks to the challenge of supporting our 2,000 students stranded in China by the travel ban. This has tested our capabilities in many different areas and significantly improved our readiness for a campus closure if required.

Of course, providing that level of support remotely to 40,000+ students would be a step change, and raises multiple questions around implementation, nevertheless I am confident we will succeed, even though a great deal of work remains to be done, in addition to much learning of our own! We are also very aware of the challenges to the continued delivery of our research commitments, which will also need some careful consideration. Suspending teaching activities for next week provides one opportunity for our staff to focus fully on these areas of core business and to adapt and adopt through creative problem solving and collaborative working.

I realise that these issues will raise many questions for our staff members, in particular the practicalities of digital teaching, concerns about the likely duration of any campus closure, and so on.

I can assure you that we are addressing all of these questions, and many others, through our Business Continuity Planning (BCP) process, and we will provide regular updates as they come to hand.

In the meantime, I encourage you all to remain optimistic, to wash your hands and to remember the sun will rise tomorrow.

Professor Dawn Freshwater