Awaiting a ‘tsunami of Covid’: UK lecturers fear students’ return

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 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 fears.

Naomi Waltham-Smith, Warwick University: ‘Universities are hampered by a lack of firm guidance’

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.

Coen says she is worried not only about her own health. “I’ve been told I can sardine six students into my tiny office and that masks aren’t mandatory,” she says. “How would you feel as a first-year student in that situation? Could you ask your professor, or the person sitting next to you, to wear a mask? It puts them in an absolutely unfair position.”

Like most universities, Nottingham is giving students and staff a list of strong recommendations on precautions, including wearing masks and socially distancing in classes. But Coen says unless universities make all these things compulsory, they will not work.

The fears are evidence-based, she says. “Universities are asking people to come back to campus without mandating that basic things are in place to make it safe. It’s not about emotion.”

A spokesperson for the university says 82% of its students have confirmed they have received at least one Covid vaccination, and the university will run its own weekly testing service. “After 18 months of disruption, we know the vast majority are looking forward to getting back to in-person teaching and the full university experience,” she says. “In instances where staff members are vulnerable or have underlying health conditions, they will not be expected to teach in person.”

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 and for rooms with inadequate ventilation not to be used.

At Exeter University, which is admitting far more students than planned after the surge in A-level grades, a lecturer says: “Everyone is frightened.” The academic, who asked to remain anonymous, says staff are worried about giving seminars in poorly ventilated rooms. “If you are shopping in a supermarket, at least it is a big building with some level of air con. In universities like ours, we are talking about buildings that are half a century old with no ventilation.”

Belinda Zakrzewski, a PhD student at Sussex University, is frightened of contracting long Covid when she resumes teaching. Although her supervisor has been supportive, she says many younger academics will not find it easy to speak out. “The idea that I can’t stop the class because someone isn’t wearing a mask makes me feel really anxious,” she says. “The university is saying this won’t be grounds for asking a student to leave.”

Williamson says universities must 'stand up' offers to students with in-person teaching – video
Williamson says universities must ‘stand up’ offers to students with in-person teaching – video

Naomi Waltham-Smith, political philosopher and reader at the University of Warwick, says the government has put universities in an “impossible” position. “Most universities are attempting to do as much as they can but they are hampered by a lack of firm guidance from the government on things like mask-wearing,” she says. “The government is asking universities to reduce the risk to the ‘lowest reasonably practicable level’ while making it difficult for them to bring in the mitigations that would reduce that risk.”

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 fears 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.”

Masks remain mandatory in venues indoors in Northern Ireland, but the union thinks face coverings alone will not be enough. The Northern Ireland executive says workplaces must maintain social distance, but has not made clear whether this applies to universities.

The UCU spokesperson says academics fully understand students have had a “rough ride” and want them to come back into the classroom, but in a phased way to manage numbers. She adds: “People will be in rooms for a prolonged period of time, and this is an aerosol-borne virus.”

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.”

Exeter University says: “The vast majority of our academics are looking forward to returning to face-to-face teaching but we recognise that some will be concerned and anxious, which is why we have been working with trade unions and public health teams to put in place comprehensive Covid-19 control measures.” The university is offering wellbeing support for staff.

Sussex University, which is offering prizes of £5,000 for double-jabbed students, says: “We are leading the way to ensure we have done everything we can to encourage all students to get vaccinated.” The university is providing staff and students with wristbands and lanyards “to indicate to others that they request physical distancing”.

Ulster University emphasises that it is adhering to the Northern Ireland executive’s guidelines. “We acknowledge that some staff may feel apprehensive and we will continue to work closely with them as we implement a comprehensive range of mitigations,” it says. The University of Strathclyde says it is “adhering to – and in some cases, going further than – the Scottish government’s baseline measures”.

The Department for Education says: “Higher education providers should continue to conduct risk assessments, in line with the latest government guidance.”

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