Dr Stephanie Coen, Assistant Professor of Health Geography at the University of Nottingham, is eager to resume teaching in person. But she worries that with students who aren’t required to wear masks when classes start in a few weeks, squeezing them like “sardines” in her small room for seminars might not be safe.
“Some of our Covid security documents talk about respecting people’s choices. But it’s not a matter of personal choice, it’s a matter of public health. It’s about taking care of each other. “
Education Secretary Gavin Williamson on Thursday reiterated instructions to universities to give students the return to normalcy they want, with face-to-face instruction this fall. But academics say the government has failed to ensure it will be safe, failing to give clear indications that masks, social distancing and proper ventilation should be mandatory in classrooms.
Last week, two of the government’s science advisers warned that freshman week’s events this month could result in “very big spikes” in Covid cases. Now branches of the academics’ union are holding emergency meetings to address staff fears.
Yesterday, the Independent Sage group of scientists released a report recommending that masks be mandatory in college class, rather than just suggested, among a list of 10 safety measures.
Coen says she doesn’t just worry about her own health. “I was told that I can hang out six students in my small office and that masks are not mandatory,” she says. “How would you feel as a freshman in this situation?” Could you ask your teacher, or the person sitting next to you, to wear a mask? It puts them in an absolutely unfair position.
Like most universities, Nottingham gives students and staff a list of strong recommendations on precautions, including wearing masks and social distancing in class. But Coen says if universities don’t make all of these things mandatory, they won’t work.
The fears are based on evidence, she said. “Universities are asking people to come back to campus without requiring the basics to be in place to make it safe. It is not a question of emotion.
A spokesperson for the university said 82% of its students have confirmed they have received at least one vaccine for Covid, and that the university will run its own weekly testing service. “After 18 months of disruption, we know the vast majority are eager to return to in-person teaching and the full university experience,” she says. “In cases where staff members are vulnerable or have underlying health issues, they would not be expected to teach in person. “
UCU National President Vicky Blake says that at many universities people teach or work in rooms with windows that don’t open or open onto hallways. She says the limbs are “broken and scared”. “Our union representatives are working hard on the ground to support members who are experiencing a kind of depressed fatigue after a year and a half when the government has made it clear that it just doesn’t care about universities.”
The union wants masks and social distancing to be mandatory in the classroom, ventilation to be monitored and poorly ventilated rooms not to be used.
At the University of Exeter, which is admitting far more students than expected after the A-level grades soar, a speaker says: “Everyone is scared. The academic, who asked to remain anonymous, said staff were concerned about giving seminars in poorly ventilated rooms. “If you do your shopping in a supermarket, at least it’s a big building with some level of air conditioning. In universities like ours, we talk about half a century old buildings without ventilation.
Belinda Zakrzewski, a doctoral student at the University of Sussex, is afraid of contracting the Covid for a long time when she resumes teaching. Although her supervisor was supportive, she says many young academics won’t find it easy to speak up. “The thought that I can’t stop the class because someone isn’t wearing a mask makes me really anxious,” she says. “The university says that will not be a reason for asking a student to leave.”
Naomi Waltham-Smith, political philosopher and reader at the University of Warwick, says the government has placed universities in an “impossible” position. “Most universities try to do everything they can, but they are hampered by the lack of firm direction from the government on things like wearing a mask,” she said. “The government is asking universities to reduce the risk to ‘the lowest reasonably possible level’ while making it difficult for them to put in place mitigation measures that would reduce this risk.”
At the University of Ulster, the local branch of the University and College Union held an emergency meeting of “enraged” academics on Wednesday, to discuss fears of returning to face-to-face teaching without a requirement to social distancing.
A spokesperson for the branch said, “If you have people crammed into classrooms, it’s too risky for staff and students. The Delta variant is extremely high here and our members are worried about themselves and their families. They are also very angry.
Masks remain mandatory in indoor venues in Northern Ireland, but the union believes face coverings alone will not be enough. The Northern Ireland executive said workplaces should maintain social distancing, but did not say whether this applied to universities.
The UCU spokesperson said academics fully understand that the students have had a “difficult journey” and want them to come back to class, but in a gradual way to manage the numbers. She adds, “People will be in the rooms for an extended period of time, and this is an aerosol-borne virus.”
The UCU at Strathclyde University also held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss “unsafe working and learning conditions”. Industry demands mandatory masks, adequate ventilation and CO2 monitors in all classes. In a tweet this week the branch said, “There is a Covid tsunami about to hit our campuses. Students will get sick and miss classes, staff will be sick and unable to teach. Some will develop long-term disability.
The University of Exeter says: “The vast majority of our academics are eager to resume face-to-face teaching, but we recognize that some will be worried and anxious, which is why we have been working with unions and teams. health department to put in place comprehensive Covid-19 control measures. The university offers welfare support for staff.
The University of Sussex, which is offering prizes of £ 5,000 to double-bitten students, said: “We are leading the way to make sure we have done everything we can to encourage all students to get the vaccine.” The university provides staff and students with bracelets and lanyards “to indicate to others that they are asking for physical distancing.”
The University of Ulster stresses that it adheres to the directives of the executive branch of Northern Ireland. “We recognize that some staff may feel apprehensive and we will continue to work closely with them as we implement a full range of mitigation measures,” he said. The University of Strathclyde says it ‘adheres to – and in some cases goes beyond – basic Scottish government measures’.
The Ministry of Education says, “Higher education providers should continue to perform risk assessments, in accordance with the latest government guidelines. “