Like many campuses, my own workplace has been hit by a wave of Covid-19 infections during the latest wave.
This term has seen colleagues scrambling to cover for sick colleagues across all functions of the university, from teaching to accommodation, technical and professional services functions.
Students too have been hit by the current wave with a persistent drip of emails about missing class from students with “flu” or Covid. There are also more serious stories – students unable to find lateral flow tests, the hospitalisation of a student, students with long Covid struggling to attend classes. These are not the waves of Covid-19 transmission that hit university campuses in 2020 or 2021 but it has not gone away.
Covid hasn’t gone away
The question we still have to ask is – are our campuses safe places to work and learn in? The de facto position of many universities is that we will now have “freshers’ covid” with us forever, probably termly (or even more frequently). What does this mean for staff and students? Are there alternatives that would make universities safer places to live, work and learn in?
Normalising waves of Covid-19 on university campuses will inevitably see sickness and illness levels rise for staff and students. More worrying still is the risk of Long Covid. Who will take responsibility for this? The usual issue that staff and students face is that the answer to that question is, essentially, no-one.
It doesn’t matter that normalising Covid-19 breakouts with minimal protections and no testing is exclusionary and endangers disabled and/or clinically vulnerable students and staff. It doesn’t matter that Covid and Long Covid disproportionately affect women and racially minoritized people. Nor does it seem to matter that this poses a logistical and workload issue. Staff of course will simply be expected to absorb the additional work involved in covering for sickness absence. Or, worse still, staff will simply be expected to carry on working.
University leaders appear to be blindly following the now largely non-existent guidance from the government, Public Health England and the Health and Safety Executive. The fact that there is substantial evidence around the need for improved ventilation, the use of masking and testing to avoid Covid-19 transmission, the multiple associated health complications and the risk of Long Covid doesn’t appear to matter. So what should staff and students do?
Keeping people well
I am the president of Durham University University and Colleges Union branch and at a general meeting in October we debated and passed a motion outlining a number of demands to our employer. This included a call for a return of the mask mandate, a renewed publicity campaign about health and safety and Covid-19, both locally and nationally by the UCU and, if they are willing UUK. Covid-19 is not over and the sooner we try to shift policy and public discourse the better. It is quite simple – the longer the denial of the reality of Covid transmission and illness continues, the more people will become sick.
To be fair to our employer, protections at Durham are better than elsewhere. During the 2021-22 academic year a mask requirement was in place and free regular LFT testing by students was required for entry to university socials. Student and staff numbers were monitored and cases were investigated, CO2 monitors were also installed across many spaces in the university and maximum occupancy numbers for rooms were also set. These are initiatives that the employer should be proud of. They also came about through constructive discussion between the local campus unions and the employer.
Currently the CO2 monitors remain in place as do the person limits. The monitoring of staff cases is currently under consideration and the other measures have been removed. Members of Durham University UCU continue to have legitimate concerns about health and safety of our workplace, students’ living and learning spaces. The current status quo will normalise higher levels of sickness absence, it will raise the number of staff and students who contract Covid-19 on campus and go on to suffer Long Covid and it will continue to pose greater health risks to disabled, racially minoritized and women staff and students.
Not the new normal
Normalising waves of “Freshers’ Covid” is not something that staff or students should accept. It is also not something that makes sense from a logistical point of view. To take a practical example, let’s assume that a particular accommodation block has an outbreak of Covid-19. Knowing about an outbreak of cases makes sense on a number of levels. Cleaning and security staff can include older and/or disabled colleagues who would likely be particularly vulnerable to transmission. Students may need support with food or medical deliveries, especially if they have just arrived. From both perspectives, information about transmission and outbreaks is essential.
Universities with more layers of protection would have multiple benefits. They would be genuinely equal and accessible places. Improved air quality and ventilation would have numerous health benefits. A proper review of the architecture and planning of working and learning spaces would also raise important questions around open plan offices and the quality of university and student buildings.
Whatever higher education employers decide to do, Covid-19 is not going away. For students and staff and their representative bodies – students unions and campus trades unions like UCU, it is beholden on us to hold university leadership to account on this. We all have a right to work and learn in healthy, safe spaces. It is our responsibility to fight for a safe, healthy university. We simply cannot accept the Covid university that is currently being imposed.