Dr Stephanie Coen, assistant professor in health geography at Nottingham University, is eager to get back to teaching in person. But she fears that with students not required to wear masks when classes start in a few weeks, squeezing them like “sardines” into her tiny room for seminars will be unsafe.
“Some of our Covid safety material talks about respecting people’s choices. But this isn’t about personal choice, it is about public health. It is about caring for each other.”
On Thursday the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, reiterated instructions for universities to give students the return to normality they [allegedly] want, with face-to-face teaching this autumn. But academics say the government has not ensured this will be safe, failing to give clear guidance that masks, social distancing and proper ventilation should be compulsory in classrooms.
Last week, two of the government’s scientific advisers warned that freshers’ week events this month could lead to “very large spikes” in Covid cases. Now branches of the academics’ union are holding emergency meetings to address staff concerns.
Yesterday the Independent Sage group of scientists published a report recommending that masks should be required in class at university, rather than merely suggested, among a list of 10 safety measures.
Vicky Blake, national president of the UCU says in many universities people are teaching or working in rooms with windows that do not open, or open on to corridors. She says members are “shattered and scared”.
“Our union reps are working hard on the ground to support members experiencing a sort of dejected fatigue after a year and a half of the government making clear it just doesn’t care about universities.”
The union wants:
- Masks and social distancing to be compulsory in class
- Ventilation to be monitored
- Rooms with inadequate ventilation not be used
At the University of Ulster, the local branch of the University and College Union held an emergency meeting of “furious” academics on Wednesday, to discuss concerns over returning to face-to-face teaching with no requirement for social distancing.
A branch spokesperson says:
“If you’ve got people jam-packed in classrooms, that is too much of a risk for staff and students. The Delta variant is extremely high here and our members are anxious for themselves and their families. They are also very angry.”
Strathclyde University UCU on Wednesday also held an emergency meeting to discuss “unsafe learning and working conditions”. The branch is calling for mandatory masks, adequate ventilation and CO2 monitors in all classrooms. In a tweet this week the branch said:
“There is a tsunami of Covid about to wash on to our campuses. Students will get sick and miss class, staff will be sick and unable to teach. Some will develop long term disability.”