Assistant Professor of Health Geography at Nottingham University, Dr. Stephanie Coen is eager to teach in person again. But she fears it won’t be safe to squeeze like sardines in her little room for a seminar because students won’t have to wear masks when classes start in a few weeks.
Some Covid safety materials explain how to respect people’s choices. However, this is not a personal choice, it is about public health. It’s about taking care of each other.
Education Minister Gavin Williamson on Thursday repeated instructions to universities this fall to ensure that students can return to the desired level of normalcy through face-to-face education. However, scholars say the government has not confirmed whether this is safe because the government has not provided clear guidelines that require masks, social distancing and adequate ventilation in classrooms.
Last week, two of the government’s scientific advisers warned that a new weekly event this month could lead to a very large spike in Covid cases. Academia chapters are now holding emergency meetings to allay staff fears.
Naomi Waltham-Smith, Warwick University: Universities struggle with a lack of solid leadership.
Yesterday, the Independent Sage group of scientists published a report recommending that, rather than simply suggesting, masks should be mandatory in college classes, among a list of 10 safety measures.
Coen says he cares not only about his health, but also about his health. I have been told that I can send 6 students to my small office and masks are not required. How would you feel if you were a freshman in such a situation? May I ask the professor or the person sitting next to me to wear a mask? It puts them in an absolutely unfair position.
Like most universities, Nottingham is providing its students and staff with a list of strong recommendations for precautions, including wearing masks and social distancing while in class. But, Coen says, it won’t work unless universities make all of this compulsory.
She says fear is evidence-based. Universities are asking people to return to campuses without asking for the basics to make campuses safe. It’s not about emotions.
A university spokesperson confirmed that 82% of students had been vaccinated against coronavirus at least once, and said the university would run its own weekly testing service. After 18 months of confusion, she says, she knows the majority are looking forward to face-to-face teaching and a full college experience again. Direct teaching may not be possible if staff are vulnerable or have underlying medical conditions.
UCU’s national president, Vicky Blake, says many colleges teach or work in rooms that don’t open or have windows leading to hallways. She says members were shattered and terrified. Our union representatives are working hard in the field to support union members who are experiencing some sort of discouragement after a year and a half government made it clear they weren’t interested in college.
The union wants to make masks and social distancing mandatory during class, monitor ventilation and avoid using poorly ventilated rooms.
According to a lecturer at the University of Exeter, which is accepting far more students than planned after A-level grades have skyrocketed. Everyone is terrified. The scholar, who requested anonymity, said he was concerned that staff were holding seminars in poorly ventilated rooms. If you’re shopping in a supermarket, it’s a large building with at least some air conditioning. In a university like ours, we’re talking about a half-century old building that’s not ventilated.
Belinda Zakrzewski, a PhD student at Sussex University, fears a long-term coronavirus infection when classes resume. Her boss has been supportive, but many young scholars say it will not be easy for them to speak out. The thought of not being able to stop class because someone isn’t wearing a mask makes me really anxious, she says. The university’s position is that this cannot be a reason for dropping out of the student.
Williamson said colleges should ‘offer’ offers to students via face-to-face instructional videos.
Naomi Waltham-Smith, a political philosopher and reader at the University of Warwick, says the government has put the university in an impossible position. She says most universities are trying as much as possible, but are struggling with a lack of firm guidelines from the government, such as wearing masks. Governments are demanding that universities reduce risk to the lowest level reasonably practicable, making it difficult for universities to take risk-reducing mitigation measures.
At the University of Ulster, the local chapter of the University and College Union held an outrageous academic emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss fears about a return to face-to-face education without social distancing requirements.
A branch spokesperson said: Crowded classrooms are too risky for faculty and students. Delta variants are very high here, and members care for themselves and their families. They are also very angry.
While masks are compulsory in indoor venues in Northern Ireland, unions believe face coverings are not enough. Northern Ireland executives have said social distancing must be maintained at work, but it’s unclear whether this applies to universities or not.
A UCU spokesperson said the scholars fully understand that students have gone through a difficult process and want students to return to the classroom, but want to manage the numbers in stages. She adds: People will be in the room for a long time and this is an aerosol-borne virus.
Strathclyde University UCU held an emergency meeting on Wednesday to discuss unsafe learning and working conditions. The branch requires mandatory masks, adequate ventilation, and CO2 monitors in all classrooms. In a tweet this week, the branch said: Students get sick and miss classes, and the staff can’t teach because they’re sick. Some will develop into long-term disability.
Exeter University said: While the majority of our scholars are looking forward to returning to face-to-face teaching, we know that some will be worried and anxious. This is why we are working with unions and public health teams to take comprehensive Covid-19 control measures. The university is providing wellness support to its staff.
Sussex University, which offers 5,000 prizes to students who use the double jab, says: We are committed to encouraging all students to be vaccinated. Universities are providing bracelets and straps to faculty and students to indicate to others that they are asking for physical distancing.
The University of Ulster emphasizes adherence to Northern Ireland executive guidelines. “We are aware that some of our employees may be anxious and will continue to work closely while implementing comprehensive mitigation measures,” he said. The University of Strathclyde says it adheres to the standard measures of the Scottish government and, in some cases, goes further than that.
The Ministry of Education says: Higher education institutions should continue to conduct risk assessments in accordance with the latest government guidelines.
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