New infections with coronavirus are dwindling, and Switzerland as well as the University of Zurich have decided to ease some of the protective measures that were put in place to contain the pandemic. From 8 June 2020, UZH is resuming on-site operations, albeit in a reduced form for the time being. Employees will now gradually return to their workplaces at UZH. The manner in which this should be done was explained by Gabriele Siegert, President ad interim, Michael Schaepman, Vice President Research, Stefan Schnyder, Vice President Finances and Human Resources, and infectious diseases expert Jan Fehr in a virtual town hall meeting held last Thursday.
At the beginning of the meeting, Gabriele Siegert thanked all employees. “We managed an exceptional situation very well, and we are now ready to take the next step.” The time has come to gradually return to normal university operations. The aim is to have UZH’s adapted on-site operations running smoothly by the end of the summer break, said the President ad interim. Over the next 10 weeks, employees should adjust to the new situation step by step.
Many employees submitted questions about the adapted on-site operations. Answers to these questions are available on UZH’s website. A summary of the questions is offered below:
From 8 June onward, employees are expected to step up their presence at UZH and return to their normal workplaces. Some of the work can continue to be done from home, and it must be possible to reach employees during office hours. As long as social distancing measures apply, the number of workplaces will be reduced in many offices; in other words, not all members of a team will be able to work in the same room at the same time. Who will work when in which office or from home will be decided by the line managers and discussed with the team.
Coordinating on-site presence requires common sense and mutual cooperation, said Stefan Schnyder. However, employees are not generally entitled to work from home, he emphasized. But it can understandably be expected that the necessary protective measures be taken and implemented to protect everyone across the entire university.
The phrase “better safe than sorry” applies here. All members of the Executive Board of the University agreed that the protection of all UZH employees is the most important thing. The safety concepts developed by the individual organizational units are key.
While the cleaning teams at UZH will step up their cleaning and hygiene measures where necessary, the frequency and scope of cleaning will be the same as before the pandemic. However, more attention will be paid in shared spaces to objects and surfaces that are touched frequently. It is just as important that every single employee adhere to the relevant hygiene and social distancing rules.
People in high-risk groups or employees living together with at-risk people should discuss their specific situation with their line managers and find suitable solutions. Employees who are at particular high risk should stay at home wherever possible. The relevant provisions have been published on UZH’s website. In addition, line managers may consult the Occupational Medicine team at the Safety, Security and Environment Office, if required.
Infectious diseases expert Jan Fehr confirmed that the easing of the lockdown measures and the gradual return to normal operations were reasonable and justifiable from a medical point of view. Whenever it is not possible for employees to follow social distancing rules (e.g. on public transport), it makes sense to use protective face masks. So-called surgical masks were the standard, but simple cotton face masks are better than no protection at all, said Fehr.
He also cautioned that we should continue to apply and adhere to the protective measures we had all learned over the past few weeks and not fall back into our old habits. “As long as there is such a severe global pandemic and we have neither an effective vaccination nor potent medical treatment, we must remain cautious,” said Fehr.
For all tasks and situations where it is not possible to keep a distance of at least two meters and where contact lasts for more than 15 minutes, with no option to follow other safety measures (e.g. protective screen, time limitations, face masks), the contact details of those present must be recorded to enable contact tracing, i.e. trace the chain of infection. This aspect will be added to the individual safety concepts of UZH units, where required.
When asked about the possibility of closing down entire buildings if someone is infected, Jan Fehr responded that contact tracing made it possible to determine the possible perimeter of the spread, and that the relevant people can get tested at the COVID-19 testing center of UZH at Hirschengraben 84. Nose and throat swabs would be taken there. “These tests can detect the virus’s genetic make-up,” said the epidemiology expert.
A fact sheet on the UZH website provides step-by-step instructions on what employees must do in suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19, or if they have been in close contact with an infected person.
Michael Schaepman said that laboratory group work was possible, as long as the safety concepts are adhered to. He appealed to the researchers to return to UZH, since good research also depends on mutual interaction and inspiration.
The Vice President Research lauded the great work carried out by researchers in the past few weeks and said that he was proud that UZH was able to win six SNSF research projects on COVID-19. UZH researchers also took an active role in the public discourse around coronavirus and raised awareness through well-founded scientific contributions. Research on coronavirus at UZH is broadly supported in a range of disciplines, and third-party funding has been granted for research projects in the social sciences, law as well as medicine and the natural sciences.
It is likely that large-scale course will continue to be held virtually in the coming semester. Social distancing rules make it impossible to hold lectures with all students, as this would led to full auditoriums. Courses will therefore be held as a mix between on-site and online teaching. After consulting with the deans, vice deans of studies and delegates from the representative bodies, the Executive Board of the University will soon determine a university-wide approach for the planning of courses and inform teaching staff, employees as well as students in due course.
Gabriele Siegert admitted that planning the coming semester would be a challenge, which is why it is important to start the planning process as soon as possible. She expects more students at UZH than in previous semesters. Applications are up by 20 and 25 percent for Bachelor’s and Master’s study programs, respectively. However, this doesn’t mean that all those who have applied will also matriculate at UZH, said Siegert. The reasons for the high number of applications include the current situation on the job market and the limited possibilities for stays abroad.
UZH made good use of digital tools to get through the crisis, said all members of the Executive Board of the University. Over the next few weeks, the Executive Board will get an overview of the lessons we should take going forward, for teaching as well as for forms of working together at UZH. Many new experiences were gained when it comes to digital teaching formats, said Gabriele Siegert. The Center for University Teaching and Learning is currently evaluating these experiences.
The President ad interim is convinced that blended learning formats will prevail in the future; however, she also cautioned that the vitality and dynamics of a university cannot be reproduced by virtual means alone. The main problem with distance learning is that there’s too little spontaneous, informal exchange between people. This is why the right mix of online and on-site formats is so important, both in teaching and research.