Dear Vice Chancellor,
We are writing to ask for urgent clarification on the University’s intention to move its level of operation from ‘Covid-19 operational’ Level 3 to Level 2. The current position, so far as we understand it, is for a limited amount of in situ teaching, with students told to expect an average of 2-3h of on campus activities per week. As a rule, staff have been advised that, save for these limited in situ activities, they should continue to plan for online delivery and should not attend campus unless strictly necessary. A move to operational Level 2 would seem to indicate something else altogether, with a significant increase in the level of on campus activities, including larger group sessions, and full return of accommodation, without social distancing measures.
Despite the various safety measures which have been put into place by the University, and which we welcome, we remain unconvinced of the necessity or safety of moving to significant amounts of in situ teaching during Semester 1. Our concerns are driven by the alarming increase in the number of cases in the UK and across the world over recent weeks, which has prompted the government to implement emergency action including the banning of gatherings of more than six in England.
The recent report from the Independent SAGE committee notes the role of universities as likely incubators of the second-wave which is expected this autumn. Events in the USA underline the wide-reaching consequences of pushing ahead with substantial
levels of in situ teaching, not only for staff and students but the local community. Lockdowns in key feeder regions for Keele students, and in many cases staff, such as Greater Manchester and Birmingham, highlight the struggle to keep local outbreaks under control. In addition, an alarming picture is emerging from USA institutions where larger Covid spikes than expected have meant that even universities with rigorous testing regimes are struggling to support self-isolating students in halls of residence, with students taking to social media to express distress in a very public manner1.
We therefore call on the University to clarify its intention with regards to its level of operations, its position with regards to in situ teaching, and to confirm that on campus activities should only happen for a maximum of 2-3h a week per student, when practical/specialist equipment/software is needed or when professional requirements exist2.
We have several specific concerns:
- We are unconvinced of the safety of bringing large numbers of students from all over the country to come straight into the classroom. There has not been, as far as we can ascertain, any clear instructions given to students about what they should or should not do in the 14 days before coming to campus. Should they isolate before coming to Keele? With students travelling from all over the world, we consider such advice vitally important to reduce the risk of transmission.
- Testing: At present, the emphasis is on testing and isolating students with symptoms, but in light of the emerging picture of asymptomatic cases in young people – and evidence from the USA of asymptomatic cases being a key driver of infection spread – a more proactive approach is vital. By the time symptoms show it is often too late to prevent a spread of the infection. However, recent news coverage suggests that there is a critical shortage of testing capacity in the UK to the point where even NHS staff are struggling to get tests processed in laboratories. We are unconvinced that adding to the burden on the testing regime is prudent at this time.
- We are also concerned about the potential reputational risk to the University of being perceived as an incubator of a second-wave in the local area, as well as contributing to a national picture where concerns have been raised about students bringing infections back to families at Christmas.
- Further detail is needed about the support available to Keele staff in the event of cases of long-term sick-leave caused by ‘long Covid’, or multiple instances of short-term sick leave in specific areas created by in situ teaching. In light of increased pressures for staff in key areas such as cleaning, administration, estates, IT, as well as for staff teaching in departments with high staff-student ratios, over the next semester, what mechanisms will be in place to cover staffing gaps that cannot be filled by colleagues? If colleagues with long-Covid have illness extending beyond 6 months, will sick-pay be extended?
- There are two interrelated issues arising from this point: 1) capacity in many programmes and teams is stretched very thinly and any significant shortages in staff numbers arising from Covid will have significant implications for workloads and problems then coming from this; 2) The Occupational Health process for Covid-affected staff needs to be clear in terms of supporting a return to work. As a matter of urgency, Keele needs to put together a specific plan to support staff members who might require specific support (e.g. speech therapy) to enable them to eventually return to work.
- Student expectations and satisfaction have been cited as a key driver for in situ teaching across all subjects, including those which ordinarily require less practical training. At the same time, when students have actively requested preference for online learning – due to concern with risk – staff have been encouraged to send responses stating that in situ classes are mandatory. What support will be given to students, and international students in particular, who return to Keele if events assume a similar pattern to the USA and in situ has to be restricted later in the term?
As you are aware, we have worked with senior management to develop a realistic way to return to in situ teaching. We are conscious of the need for clarity with members of staff, students and the wider community about how the University is playing its role in keeping the local community safe.
We are increasingly concerned, however, at the lack of responsiveness to the evolving national and international situation, especially in light of the spotlight that has been put on universities over the past fortnight.
Knowledge about Covid is evolving and, as noted in previous responses from senior management in relation to questions posed by UCU members, there is as of yet no firm consensus on key issues related to ventilation, asymptomatic cases, and other key factors, as well as the long-term health implications of Covid.
We too wish for a return to ‘normal’, but these are not normal times and we are extremely concerned that the University is taking the step to move its level of operation to Level 2 just as new restrictions are being put in place nationally in response to a rapidly deteriorating public health situation. The current measures will not make the campus safe for staff, students and the community.
Hence we call for an immediate re-evaluation of the plans to move to Operational Level 2, for the health of all people concerned and to protect the university’s reputation.
Keele UCU Committee and Keele Unison Committee
2 KUCU supports placements in health-related courses – e.g. medical, nursing, pharmacy, radiography, midwifery and physio students – because we recognise the urgent need for students to be able to undertake such vital work.
Reply From Vice-Chancellor
The following reply was received by KUCU 18 September 2020 at 10:18:40 BST
To Keele UCU Committee and Keele Unison Committee
Thank you for your joint letter of 16 September raising your concern that the University has an intention to move from its current operational level 3 as outlined in our COVID-19 response framework. I’m sorry to say that you have been misinformed. The University has no intention of making such a move at this time. All our planning for the start of semester is in-line with operational level 3, as summarised in the framework we published in May 2020, and reiterated in our meeting with UCU on 7th August. Educational delivery will therefore proceed as we have planned and outlined for operational level 3 of the framework. I hope that significantly reduces any unnecessary anxiety caused to your members and provides the clarification you have sought.
In terms of the additional 6 specific concerns you have also raised:
- Students travelling to Keele from overseas where infection rates are considered a risk are required to self-isolate for 14 days on arrival into the UK. We have outlined the measures in place to support these students elsewhere. There is no requirement to ask students travelling from other areas (including areas in the UK) to self-isolate prior to their arrival at Keele. Infection risks as a result of a student who may ‘come straight into the classroom’ will be minimised by operating strict social distancing measures in the classroom and all public areas on campus.
- Next week we will confirm the availability of on-campus testing facility for the local community, as part of the national network of testing centres. You will be aware that all universities have been asked to confirm and agree outbreak management plans with the local health protection teams. We have done this and will outline these measures next week. We note the comparisons to the approaches of some US universities, particularly those who took the decision to re-open at a time of peak and prolonged levels of infection encountered as a result of minimal state-level lock-down measures.
- Both SAGE and independent SAGE have drawn attention to the need for universities to ensure their operations do not result in significant local infection outbreaks. This has been a priority in all our planning, our partnership with local health protection teams and guidance provided by government to universities last week.
- As a result of the measures we have put in place to minimise infection on campus, including strict social distancing measures, we do not envisage significant staff absences. We will obviously want (and will be required) to monitor staff absence due to COVID-19 infection and continue to provide the levels of support we put in place to support staff who have contracted COVID-19 since March 2020.
- We will continue to provide occupational health support to those members of staff who require it, including those who may require it as a result of longer term impacts of COVID-19 infection.
- If local health protection teams require the University to change its levels of operation, we will do so, in-line with the outbreak management plan we will publish next week and with guidance from this team. This plan will enable us to provide support to students in the way we have provided it since March this year.
Please be reassured that any perception that the University lacks responsiveness to the current situation is very misplaced. We continue to work hard to implement a range of measures, and will continue to do so, as we have since the onset of the pandemic at the start of this year. We have and will continue to report and communicate on these measures to all our communities and comprehensive information can be accessed via www.keele.ac.uk/coronavirus. Next week we will publish a detailed summary of all the measures we have in place.