Staff express reluctance about return to in-person teaching amid surge in Coronavirus cases


By H Lowell, News Reporter

Growing numbers of professors and lecturers at Bristol University have told their departments in recent days that they are deeply uncomfortable about resuming in-person classes because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to people familiar with the matter.

The University decided earlier this year that lectures and other large-scale academic instruction would take place online amid a range of precautions intended to minimise the spread of the virus.

But rising concern by faculty members, anxious that they are being pushed to return to classrooms too fast, has led to a fraught situation, given the University’s plans to hold some face-to-face tuition through in-person seminars and tutorials.

‘I’m really unhappy about it,’ said one Philosophy lecturer, who requested anonymity because they were not authorised to speak publicly and feared retaliation, about the prospect of teaching in-person seminars.

‘I’m not concerned so much about myself getting it, but I do worry about getting my whole family ill. And then there are of course some members of staff who really are high risk.’

The main complaint from faculty across the University revolves around the fact they are being pressed to resume in-person instruction, even as coronavirus cases have again started to soar in the UK.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this week announced further measures to combat an alarming rise in coronavirus cases, which have so far infected more than 416,000 people in the country and killed almost 42,000.

The situation became more serious on Thursday, when the UK recorded 6,634 new cases of coronavirus, the highest number recorded since the start of the pandemic, according to Public Health England, the agency tracking the data.

Driving some of the concern among tenured academic staff is that they are predominantly older and, as a result, are more likely to have underlying health conditions that put them at heightened risk of adverse health effects should they contract the virus.

‘There are of course some members of staff who really are high risk’

The mostly younger lecturers and researchers, meanwhile, remain anxious that they might contract coronavirus from students and then transmit it on to older relatives or family members at home.

And faculty members uncomfortable with the return to in-person teaching have complained privately that to expect roughly 27,500 students to behave according to public health guidelines is ‘simply not realistic’, another lecturer said.

University officials say they are taking all the necessary precautions, and reiterate that face-to-face teaching is what students, families, and even a large proportion of academic staff ultimately want.

‘As a university, we have been working tirelessly over the summer to make our campus Covid secure,’ a Bristol University spokesperson said. ‘We take the health and wellbeing of our staff extremely seriously.’

Still, mounting evidence of students at universities and colleges in the United States – where classes have already resumed – flouting rules designed to mitigate the spread of coronavirus has exacerbated fears.

Officials at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, one of the largest colleges in the U.S., shut down all in-person teaching after the first week of classes, citing a swift spike in coronavirus cases.

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Whether to go back into the classroom is starting to become a topic among the faculty, several lecturers told Epigram, and a Philosophy department conference call last week saw some staff repeatedly raise concerns about in-person instruction.

Not everyone on the call was opposed to the return of face-to-face teaching. But even staff enthusiastic about welcoming students back into their classrooms later complained about a general lack of consultation from the University.

‘Nobody asked us anything or what risk we might be prepared to take,’ said one lecturer who was present on the conference call and also asked for anonymity, deeply frustrated about the lack of consultation.

The University has since made overtures to faculty in a bid to better address the concerns of staff, the spokesperson said, noting that those who are at high risk or live with someone at risk can request adjustments to their line managers.

Faculty members anxious about the prospect of face-to-face classes received a boost earlier this month when the teaching union UCU gave their backing to nationwide calls for online-only teaching this Autumn.

‘Staff who are themselves more vulnerable to Covid-19, and staff who live with people at heightened risk, must not be required to work on campus,’ UCU said in a memo about the prospect of a return to in-person teaching.

Featured Image: Cameron Scheijde

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