This Michaelmas Term will be unlike any other, and I thought I would give you an update on how we have prepared for this.

Throughout the summer we worked on modifying our buildings, our processes and our policies. There has been a wealth of documents from the University and the Conference of Colleges to provide guidelines and to ensure consistency. The guidelines and instructions have of course shifted many times as the external situation and Government guidelines have changed. A risk assessment has been carried out for every building and activity, and we have Return to Work protocols for everyone who works in College. Hand sanitisers have been installed by doors, there are Perspex screens by counters and on dining tables, and face coverings are worn inside. All rooms used for teaching have been assessed for maximum occupancy within the guidance and cleaning material is provided to make sure that tables and equipment can be sanitised after use. Since our space has in effect “shrunk” because of the social distancing, we have installed a large marquee on the JCR lawn that expands the JCR bar in the evenings and be used for other things in the day time.

Students are divided into households, where each staircase has a household for each floor. All students are made aware of what is allowed within a household, in College grounds and outside College. We need to do all we can to keep the Catz community safe and healthy, but we also need to show consideration for the local community. We are aiming for a culture where we have a common understanding of what is the right thing to do and why. Of course we have to be prepared to apply our disciplinary processes for very serious or persistent transgression of Covid-secure behaviour.

The University offers testing for students who are experiencing symptoms and we have a clear process for what happens from the point that a student registers for a test. All students have been made aware of the process, but all they really need to know is that they contact the Porters’ Lodge. Once they have done this, they will be guided through the process by the Porters and the Junior Deans.

We had a total of around 100 students who needed to self-isolate for two weeks because they had arrived from a country that was not on the Government’s travel corridor list. This is not an ideal way to start your time in Oxford, but we did our best to welcome them. Our lovely Junior Deans played a key role in this. They didn’t think it would be nice for the students to walk into a bare room with just formal instructions about how to behave during the period of isolation, so they suggested we put a little pot plant in each room, so this was how we greeted our quarantining students. The Junior Deans checked in with the students every day, as they will do with any student who has to self-isolate, and together with the JCR and the MCR they run a programme of virtual social and educational events. Online resources are also pooled with other Colleges. I had a virtual welcome meeting with almost all self-isolating student and all students I spoke to were positive and felt well looked after. For any students having to self-isolate, the College provides a daily food parcel, or the students can opt to order their own food from a supermarket, and if they do, the porters or a member of the JCR or MCR “buddy” crew will bring it round to their door.

We are of course aware that self-isolation, and more generally worries about their own safety or that of friends and family, will affect our students. To be able to offer support, we have expanded the pool of peer supporter and the time that our counsellor spends in the College. We have appointed two more Junior Deans. We are also prepared for more students needing financial hardship support, and thanks to the generosity of our alumni and friends, we are in a position to provide this.

We feel we are as well-prepared as we can be, but of course we know that it is likely that we will need to adapt as the environment changes and as we see how well our processes work. For this purpose we have a group of me, the relevant College Officers and support staff, who will meet weekly to review the situation and act as necessary.

I hope that you are all keeping well in these exceptional times. I very much miss not having opportunities to meet with you, and I look forward to the time when we can get together again.

Professor Kersti Börjars
Master of St Catherine’s College