Monday 20 April 2020 10:40am
AskOtago in operation on campus, prior to lockdown.
The University of Otago is providing regular wellbeing checks for students and staff as the country remains in lockdown.
Following the Government’s announcement of the Alert Levels and a rapid move to national lockdown, the University quickly recognised the need for regular contact with its students and staff to ensure they remain safe and well.
The University’s Emergency & Business Continuity Coordinator Andrew Ferguson explains the self-isolation and lockdown measures are unprecedented and it can be difficult especially for students and staff living alone, or away from home.
“This is especially important for students with no family nearby who can check on them, or in New Zealand. There could potentially be some very vulnerable and anxious students living among us and not all situations will be the same.
“If any Government systems become overloaded, for example, Covid-19 reporting systems, then the University and Student Health can provide a backstop to seek out the right support for those in need.”
The initiative is not aimed at students who have returned to their families and have support, but many who live near the University’s campuses in Dunedin, Wellington, Christchurch and Invercargill, and who may be away from their families and isolated from others.
Mr Ferguson explains the initiative was aimed at students only in the first few days however, the University extended the service to staff as it is aware some may be living alone and would appreciate the support.
The service is being provided by the University’s helpdesk provider AskOtago, which acted quickly to set up a dedicated response team currently providing regular phone calls or emails for almost 2000 students and staff.
AskOtago’s Senior Manager Philippa Hoult explains they have been surprised at the enthusiastic uptake of the service by so many students and a smaller number of staff members.
“Our staff are loving this daily contact with our students,” Ms Hoult says. Currently, the team is staying in contact with 1506 students by email, 373 by phone and 24 staff by email and phone.
“We know for our students living alone we are a connection to the outside world and we take this responsibility seriously.”
Third-year anthropology student Timothy McRobbie has found the wellbeing checks “invaluable”.
Originally from Tauranga, though he has lived in Dunedin for a number of years, Mr McRobbie (30) is living alone in private accommodation while completing his second Bachelor’s degree.
“Having someone communicate with me on a regular basis is really helpful and supportive for me. Some days AskOtago is the only contact I receive from the outside world,” Mr McRobbie explains.
Throughout his studies, he has worked part-time in hospitality but was made redundant a couple of weeks prior to lockdown, directly due to business turndown because of the pandemic. Mr McRobbie says this has been a cause of grief for him and had an isolating effect upon him even before lockdown and the closure of both the University and hospitality industry.
“I have found the connection with the University during this time and the enthusiasm of the staff at AskOtago not only reassuring but inspiring during such challenging and uncertain times for our society.”
Ms Hoult says a large number of University staff from a wide range of departments including Health and Safety, Campus Watch and the University Union, have also volunteered to assist with the checks. Many staff members say they have found it an extremely rewarding experience.
The checks cover general health and wellbeing with a brief to direct students to any services they might need, including escalating serious issues to Student Health.
Problems picked up to date include people with cough and/or fever symptoms thinking they are not serious enough to call a doctor. AskOtago encourages them to call a health provider and checks in again the same day to find out the outcomes.
Ms Hoult says despite the fact the AskOtago team has its own challenges all working from home, she is delighted how it has become a vital support service within the University.
“Our team at AskOtago are now working remotely across Dunedin, Nelson and the UK, but are working so closely together around responding to inquiries it is as if we are all still on-site.”