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Covid – one year on: “The resilience of staff and students has frankly been extraordinary”

Home / More / News / Covid – one year on: “The resilience of staff and students has frankly been extraordinary”

Published on 19 March 2021

On year on
On year on

Next Tuesday’s national day of reflection marks the anniversary of the UK's first Covid lockdown.

Prominent buildings and landmarks across Sunderland and the North East will be illuminated to mark the occasion.

Here, as the University of Sunderland, we are taking the opportunity to look back on what has been a unique year in our history.

We see how the University has adapted, changed, supported and grown in 12 months like no other.

We asked each of our faculties, teams, facilities and campuses to reveal just how the past year has been for them – what they have learned, and how they have changed.


Faculty of Health Sciences and Wellbeing

The past 12 months have demonstrated the critical need for ongoing education and training in the healthcare sector.

Like never before, society has relied on the expertise of our doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers from all backgrounds.

The University of Sunderland opened its first ever School of Medicine in September 2018.

At the time, little did staff and students know that within little over two years, the first cohort would be involved in the biggest vaccination roll-out in history.

So, how has the SoM coped and what does this mean for the future?

Professor Scott Wilkes, Head of School of Medicine and Professor of General Practice and Primary Care at Sunderland, said: “We’ve had excellent feedback from the students around our student support mechanisms during the pandemic, both pastoral and academic.

“All learning outcomes have been delivered with almost 100% attendance at all teaching sessions.

“The progression of medical students has been delivered despite the challenges posed by the pandemic. We have delivered a successful hybrid model of face-to-face and remote learning with excellent teaching and learning resources on our VLE Canvas.

“The medical students have engaged positively and overwhelmingly with the national vaccination programme roll out, with many giving up their weekends to help vaccinate people across the region.

“Hands, face, space has been respected and adhered to by our students in face-to-face sessions such as anatomy and clinical skills.

“Our medical students have shown remarkable resilience whilst in their accommodation during the pandemic and they're looking forward to emerging back onto a vibrant campus post-pandemic.”

The University’s trainee nurses also proved unstoppable when one cohort – within days of graduating – found themselves on the NHS frontline as the UK went into lockdown.

Sue Brent, Head of the School of Nursing and Health Sciences, said: “In a year that has presented society with an unprecedented set of challenges, to see our University family rise to these challenges has been an honour.

“Within days of the first lockdown in March 2020, our graduating cohort of nurses found themselves working in the region’s hospitals.

“Imagine that. Straight out of University and into an NHS faced with a global pandemic.

“And I'm proud to say they coped like the true professionals this University trained them to be. They are a credit to us and a credit to the profession they are devoting their lives to.

“But it didn't stop there.

“Today our student nurses and our academic staff are playing a key role in the vaccination roll-out, volunteering and giving their free-time to help vaccinate the people of the North East.

“Our graduates in nursing, allied health professions and biosciences continue to work on the frontline providing patient care and laboratory services in hospitals across the region and the UK and this University will play a vital role in supporting a post-Covid health service.

“But it is not just in our hospitals where our students have excelled.

“We have seen our sports and exercise students supporting and lifting each other up. From Zoom fitness classes, to ensuring our elite athletes continue their training. From organising wellbeing walks, to simply offering a listening ear when needed.

“While we all hope the coming months bring with them a return to familiarity, I hope we don't forget what we achieved and the unity that brought us all together during this unique time.”


Faculty of Business, Law and Tourism

The economy, the justice system, the travel industry have all been impacted in their own unique ways during the past year.

The University’s FBLT faculty stepped up to ensure students were able to contribute and continue their vital studies.

Whether studying in Africa, Hong Kong or Sunderland, students were able to access learning to ensure the University could create future generations of leaders to help rebuild a post-Covid world.

Professor Lawrence Bellamy, Academic Dean, Faculty of Business, Law and Tourism, said: “It’s been an amazing 12 months of entering, leaving and entering lockdown again.

“During this period the staff have been outstanding in adapting their teaching to ensure that students received the tuition they needed to perform well in the assessments and that in the challenges of working online the health and welfare of our student cohorts were always considered.

“We have supported students from all around the world, including through scheduling sessions to support different time-zones and through working in partnership with our other campus locations such as Hong Kong.

“We have adapted our assessments to ensure that all students had a fair and equitable chance to access and provided extra support in light of the many student challenges faced under these difficult conditions.

“We have supported students with virtual placements, where they have contributed to the organisations they are attached to through working remotely, gaining valuable experience of a different working world.

“We have continued to offer our Law Clinic service, supporting the community has never been so important and despite working with clients from all backgrounds and access requirements we have successfully dealt with over 100 cases.

“In Sunderland we have contributed to the Covid-19 recovery group run by Sunderland BID, which has been active in supporting City Centre businesses and conducted research to support business resilience and recovery.

“More broadly our academics have also been active working on national policy, looking at productivity challenges facing UK PLC. Our Academics have throughout this period continued to study and publish on this phenomenon, exploring the impact of how this is and may shape society going forward.

“In the international arena we have continued to support our many partnerships in places including Sri Lanka, Singapore, Kenya, Malaysia and Uzbekistan, to ensure that the thousands of students studying for University of Sunderland degrees throughout the world have every opportunity to continue with their studies under these most difficult conditions.

“We have continued to receive students from our global network to the city too, supporting them through the trials of tests, travel delays, quarantine and increased bureaucracy with support, advice and guidance in addition to ongoing access to teaching materials online.

“For those students who could not travel the virtual experiences continue and our provision has included ‘virtual field trips’ so that students can still experience the things they would ordinarily visit in person via technology.”

Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries

The impact of the pandemic on art and culture has been significant. But the response has been more so.

New innovative ways of ensuring the work of this vital sector not only survives, but thrives, have helped keep the important work of many students at the forefront.

From online exhibitions, to excellence in journalism, film and media, the worst of the pandemic has brought out the best in the University’s creative minds.

Professor Arabella Plouviez, Dean of Faculty of Arts and Creative Industries, said: “The last 12 months has been challenging but at the same time has led to innovation and resilience that has been remarkable.

“For a faculty where community and collaboration is so key, distance learning has certainly created challenges. However, socially-distanced, well-managed Covid-safe teaching and learning worked well throughout the autumn term, alongside on-line synchronous and asynchronous teaching and learning.

“Our students appreciated the opportunity to be back on-campus and were key to ensuring this went smoothly.

“Our degree shows online at Sunderland Creatives were a huge success, providing a purpose-designed platform for final year students to show their work on – and bringing in guest speakers and visitors to the celebratory launch events.

“The running of our community radio station, SparkFM, with volunteers and students operating consistently throughout the different lockdowns from bedrooms and kitchen tables – has been a significant achievement, and the virtual MediaHub was maintained throughout.

“Creative Industries Week in November moved entirely online with a full range of workshops, talks, networking events and individual support sessions and with engagement from staff and students from across the faculty.

“All the specialist technicians – in our four buildings, have supported staff and students consistently, provided online support, access to our resources and ensured equipment is available, clean and safe.

“And in each area, the ‘going the extra mile’ has been really evident.

“From the hundreds of staff videos made to support student learning, which range from ‘how to throw a pot’ to introducing French cinema, to the extra support drop-in groups, the special Christmas student celebration, the interactive Paper exhibition, the Shakespeare in Facebook, the Instagram takeover, the Isolation Choir, the joint TNE and on campus student sessions, and a massive range and diversity of speakers and masterclasses, with leaders from industry, from research networks and from our broader university community, bringing debate, discussion and challenges into the curriculum at a scale well beyond what we had achieved pre-pandemic.

“The flexibility and resilience of our staff and students across the whole faculty, creatively responding to the challenges and supportively responding to an endless cycle of change has frankly been extraordinary.”


Faculty of Technology

One year ago, the world went online, as businesses, governments, schools, colleges and universities found themselves facing an unprecedented challenge.

And the University of Sunderland was no different.

Within days, lectures, seminars, meetings and events were switched online to ensure minimum disruptions to the University’s operations and the students’ experience.

Of course, none of this could have been done without technology, demonstrating how this sector, quite literally, kept the world going.

Technology will continue to dominate in the years ahead and the University is at the forefront, ready to train the next generation who will face a whole new set of challenges.

Professor Alastair Irons, Academic Dean for Faculty of Technology, said: “The past year has been a strange year in many ways and nobody had predicted that from March 2020 we would be operating under lockdown.

“As a result the focus for the operation of the faculty was to maintain business as usual, minimise disturbance for our students, enable learning through a move to hybrid learning and adopting the principles of instructional design ensuring that all modules were accessible from off campus.

“As well as changing the delivery mode of all modules the Faculty was able to continue with major projects through Institute of Coding and SAM as well as create a suite of new applied MSc programmes and launch three new MSc programmes through Sunderland Online.”


Faculty of Education and Society

It has been a challenging year for the education sector, with schools, colleges and universities all having to adapt to new ways of teaching.

While the pandemic has highlighted the sector’s fast-moving flexible approach to learning it has also, more importantly, highlighted the professionalism, importance and sheer talent of teachers.

Susan Edgar, Head of School of Education, said: “In the early days of lockdown before Teams was introduced to the student population, staff absolute dedication to students was demonstrated in the variety of ingenious methods and uses of technology employed by tutors in order to ensure continuity and support to our students.

“The resilience of the Tutor Team has made me both extremely proud and humbled by the excellent calibre of my colleagues in the School.

“Staff with caring responsibilities for children and elders, staff shielding, home schooling, with babies and toddlers and dealing with their own difficulties during lockdown have maintained and exceeded their high standards and won the student body's well-deserved respect.

“Lockdown has been an unexpected and different experience for students and many have found this challenging at times.

“The Tutor Team has done an outstanding job not only in guiding students academically but crucially in also supporting their wellbeing.

“Communication to students has been key both formally and informally. Team leaders have regularly shared with me stories of tutors going that extra mile to support with one-to-one meetings, a kindly email, a fun session, additional academic sessions and a listening ear.”


Mikeala Morgans, Principal Lecturer: Team Leader, Initial Teacher Training, said: “During the past 12 months, we have had to adapt to very different ways of working and supporting trainees.

“Since March last year, seven new lecturers and senior lecturers have started with the team.

“None of them have yet met everybody in person and the majority of their activity with the team and with trainees has been undertaken online. However, they have been well inducted and have settled well into their new posts and have even created social events including a ‘confectionary quiz’.

“Our recruitment was excellent for 2019-20 and we have very strong cohorts of trainees. Our recruitment for 2020-21 is at least in line with the national recruitment picture and, in many cases, even better.

“Since September, we have launched nine new programmes. We have also written and had validated a new BA (Hons) Primary Education with SEND programme to train specialist teachers and a new PGCE MfL programme which will both have their first intakes from September 2021.

“Ofsted visited us in January 2021 to conduct research into our response to COVID and the development of our curriculum. We were asked some challenging questions but were very well placed to be able to answer them exceptionally positively.

“We have also been successful in putting new projects in place. We have won a bid to be a North East National Tutoring Programme (NTP) partner.

“Despite the obvious challenges this has brought with the third lockdown in January, Nicola Welsh has been instrumental in pushing this forward through engaging schools, interviewing potential tutors, and organising the tutor training programme so that we can respond to the needs of schools and pupils across the region.

“We have also been very successful in the setting up and running of the Twin Tutoring project to provide teaching and learning online for the children of staff from our Sunderland and London campuses.

“We have now trained and supported over 170 trainees to become tutors and we have engaged with over 50 members of staff.

“Most recently, our Year 2 trainees have been trained to be tutors and we are trialling ‘Catch up Clubs’ in a local primary school as well as providing online holiday clubs with activities such as yoga and arts.

“Our trainees and students have responded remarkably well to the Covid situation and we are very proud of their commitment and flexibility during the past year.

“Many have been involved in developing pedagogy to support teaching and learning online and this has, in no small way, really enhanced their skills making them a valuable commodity to schools. “

Peter Kay, Head of School of Social Sciences, said: “Staff have adapted/responded extremely positively and proactively to the pandemic in relation to teaching and learning. They have re-designed their delivery online to ensure that students have manageable and positive opportunities to engage pro-actively in their learning whilst still being supported through the process.

“Student feedback has been very positive with many students saying that they have much appreciated the responsiveness of the staff and the level of support that they have received.

“Staff adapted their work extremely quickly and very effectively with high quality materials and regular support sessions. For some, it was a challenge, but a challenge they met incredibly well to the benefit of the students.”


The University of Sunderland in London

Our presence in the capital has been something of a success story during the past 12 months.

Offering transformative experiences to more than 4,000 students from various backgrounds, and the continued developing highly skilled, ready for work graduates, through career focused teaching and learning.

UoS in London had more new students joining them than in any previous year - 2,578 across four intakes since March 2020. Four new programmes were successfully launched: one in August 2020 and three in October 2020.

Programme Managers mentored and supported both staff and students through the move to online teaching and learning.

Support and academic staff quickly adapted to the new ways of teaching and supporting students remotely, often using innovative ways to deliver excellent student experience. There was also support within the University community throughout the lockdown, managers worked hard to maintain collaboration within and between teams, as well as keeping people connected.

When it was safe to return to campus, UoS in London made sure that the building was Covid-safe with many safety measures put in place and welcomed students back with open arms.

During the last 12 months, the campus also increased the extra-curricular learning offer, launched a workshop series on skills for work, and developed a skills framework that sits across the academic and careers service activity, enabling them to support students more cohesively.

Students and alumni made a difference by helping their communities throughout the pandemic.


Team Sunderland

It’s been quite a year for the University’s Team Sunderland who have successfully managed to navigate the lack of competitive sports and team action.

Laura Hockaday, Sports Development Officer, officer said: "It’s been difficult  as we move past the one year mark of no competitive action.

“It’s been a challenge to keep our teams and members motivated throughout the various lockdown restrictions but we’ve been delighted with how they’ve engaged with all the activities we’ve put on.

"Amongst themselves our teams have continued to meet virtually, hosting training sessions, taking part in strength & conditioning training and holding social events to keep members old and new engaged.

“This has been a source of great pride for us and our members should be extremely proud of how they’ve helped their respective clubs to develop in trying circumstances.

"We hope as our teams return to action next month they can continue to grow and we can have a successful and uninterrupted 2021-22 campaign."


University of Sunderland Students’ Union


Life during a pandemic has been challenging for all students, but the University of Sunderland’s Students’ Union has been an ever-present support.

Katherine Cooper, Marketing & Communications Manager, said: “The SU is overwhelmed by how amazing our students have been during this time and how well they have responded throughout. 

“The SU has adapted its ways of working and some of our most memorable achievements over the past year have been delivering our SU Loves You Awards Ceremony virtually, visiting Halls to give away lots of goodies during the Festive Break and most recently for the first time ever running our Elections for our 2021/22 Executive Team virtually.”


Our Frontline workers

Throughout the year, a small army of frontline staff have been on site 24/7, working to keep our campuses secure, clean, maintained and safe for everyone.

Colleagues have also provided a range of services to our students; from face-to-face teaching, through support for those in accommodation, to library assistance – to name but a few.