Update on Delivery of In-Situ teaching at Keele University

Dear Members,

This is an update about the delivery of in-situ teaching. We have taken on board our members’ concerns and presented them to the University. We have asked that academic staff are given a choice whether they want/feel/are able to deliver in situ teaching and not be forced into it. Please find below the proposal we submitted to the University.

We are pleased to share with you that our proposal has been taken on board, as the Director of Human Resources Rachel Adams communicated to us this afternoon – please find the response below.

Thanks for engaging with us in this process and voicing your concerns.
We look forward to the EGM next week,

Meeting Thursday 15th October 2-3 PM (Becky, Mariangela, Phil)

We would like to start by acknowledging the work undertaken over summer and to acknowledge the difficulties which were addressed during the summer. 

COVID: Students and Staff

  1. What we can see now in the UK, as we saw from the US in August, is that enabling genuine Covid security is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. As a consequence of trying to enable in situ teaching, workloads have become unsustainable. This is creating huge amounts of stress.
    1. We’re “Covid-secure”, apart from the halls which have all sorts of behaviour going on (2 COVID parties that we know of, serious concerns about things like this AND safety of staff who have to intervene). Staff must enter the classroom even when they know that some – not all – students are misbehaving outside, and that isolation for those who break the rules is not mandated. 
    2. Staff told they need to work longer hours to deliver our blended learning strategy, staff are working longer hours to deliver blended learning. In situ classes have increased the number of sessions a tutor has to teach and this is on top of having to deliver some material asynchronously.
    3. Stress is increased not just by the increased teaching burdens: expectations for research have not been lowered. This adds to the anxiety of staff when trying to cope with new forms of teaching delivery.
  2. Keele has only just started, compared with some of those universities that have hundreds of cases (Keele has about 100 on 14 Oct). Keele UCU does not want to see students or the University negatively stigmatised in the local media or community. Ensuring that the number of cases at Keele remains relatively low is important for our reputation. We believe that increasing the proportion of online delivery will help with managing local perceptions. 
  3. We do not want to see staff break, and we know a significant number are close to that point. And we wouldn’t be surprised if sickness absence is up this year already.
  4. Our overwhelming concern is about staff well-being – mental health and stress from increasing workloads and stressful working conditions. 
    1. Staff from different faculties are experiencing high levels of stress: increased stress caused by the practicalities of in situ teaching, more hours, they have approached us and shared their concerns; here are some examples of what some have experienced before entering the class: “I have panic attacks, my hands and legs shake”; “I had to lie down in the office before going in”; “I did not sleep the night before”; “I am scared”; “I am terrified”; “I was teaching in a large room, we could not hear each other”. Some of them have said, “why doesn’t senior management come in to see what in situ teaching feels and look like”?; “Lecturers shouldn’t be put in this impossible position when deans et al work from home.”
    2. As cases increase, serious concerns about transmission between students and staff also increase. Again, Covid secure is difficult, and everyone knows that. 
    3. Other concerns: students informing lecturer that a flatmate/close contact is symptomatic and is being tested, student as close contact is still in class, lecturer not considered at risk of exposure? Mitigations have been put in place, but science is increasingly saying that 2m is likely not enough, especially with exposure more than 15 minutes.
    4. Social distancing in corridors, and when entering and leaving rooms, is difficult and isn’t always taking place. We have seen examples in rooms booked back-to-back, problems with crowding, cleaning, and in teaching sessions having to be cut short. Also concerns about entering rooms that have not been aired, thus exposing new group to the previous group.
    5. Concerns about students not wearing masks, not maintaining social distancing, moving furniture from Covid-secure arrangements. Advice currently is to inform school AFTER teaching session. Delaying the reporting of an incident until after a session leaves staff and students unnecessarily exposed. 
    6. Covid secure mitigations cannot 100% control behaviour or all interactions. Experience of teaching in situ has increased concerns for many individuals.
    7. These concerns exacerbate stress, and they are only a few practical examples of many we have received. This is all before we get to grave concerns about Long Covid, for which many of our staff are within the key age demographic of about 30-50.

So, the message we are taking home here is that wellbeing, and especially mental health, is an issue among staff, and we are dealing with a health hazard that is causing both physical and mental harm. People are increasingly angry, stressed and scared. It is clear that this is not sustainable even in the short term and we are not even in the middle of the first term. 

  1. We need to see the steps taken to address this. We have always maintained that in situ teaching can take place where it is necessary (labs, professional requirements, etc), and that in order to protect that we need to ensure as much risk as possible is minimised. We need in situ to stop in areas and programmes that do not require it.
  2. We recognise that this is not ideal, and we know that this isn’t what everyone wants. However, going back to so many conversations over the summer, we all agreed that what people want might not be what is best to do. We need to return to that, and we need to reconsider.
  3. Also concerns about Educational quality and continuity: student experience and satisfaction:

Staff are telling us that in many cases  – and this is coming also from those who enjoy and have no problem with in situ teaching –  that in situ teaching can be very difficult with current restrictions. Wearing masks, being far apart in a large room with windows open and/or noisy and buzzing fans is making the in situ experience in many cases an unpleasant one. Discussion-based small group learning is difficult. One member said: “My experience of in situ teaching was deeply troubling. Even though everyone wore masks and tried to maintain physical distance, I felt unsafe and anxious, especially because of the need to constantly monitor one’s own movements, watch that students do not come too close, tell students to adjust their masks, clean their tables, etc. Even though the social aspect of in situ learning was enjoyable to students, the learning experience was poor. We could not hear each other properly due to distance, ventilation sounds and mask-wearing. Students joining remotely could not participate in the session effectively due to the same reasons. Conversation was stilted, slow and students had to repeat themselves numerous times. The gap between the risks of conducting in situ teaching and its benefits is clear and ever widening”. We know that the amount of in situ teaching offered in some areas has already been reduced, partly, if not largely, due to quality of education concerns.

We ask you to allow staff to have a choice: here in situ teaching under these circumstances is not adding value and it’s likely to be harming education. We need here to ensure that student experience is maintained and that educational quality is delivered. 

  1. Our position is that teaching should be online as default, with required in situ taking place only when necessary and only where safe. In that position is the interpretable point of default, and what to do with that. We firmly believe there is scope in that to reach a position that will benefit the majority of staff and the university. That is to move teaching online as default, but allow staff already in situ to opt into continuing in situ.

OUR SUGGESTION: we want to work with you and, like you, we want to ensure sustainability as well as wellbeing of all staff. Provided that we have different views on ‘in situ teaching’, we believe that in these very extreme and volatile circumstances of negotiating between covid risk and both short and long-term staff wellbeing, this needs to be a matter of choice. Staff need to be given a choice whether they want/feel/are able to deliver in situ teaching. Currently too many staff feel forced into it. No member of staff should be put into a position that they are not happy or comfortable with. This is damaging.

  1. There are key advantages to this approach: 
    1. we address the rising and widespread issue of mental health among staff; 
    2. we keep/reduce the current situation of the outbreak on campus as ‘moderate’; 
    3. most importantly: as an employer, you’ll be seen as being supportive and protective of its staff. It will allow you to turn the tide – currently staff are not happy (even many of those who are content with in situ teaching are not comfortable with the idea that their colleagues who feel at risk, vulnerable or scared, have to go in). 
  2. Simple message: staff can opt-out of in situ teaching. This message has to come from the centre. Decentering this (schools/faculties) is not possible and not right. Deans and HoS always refer to general guidelines from above or communications from members of SMT. We need your intervention here and your leadership.
  1. Continuing current levels of in situ teaching are unsustainable. We need to listen to SAGE and stop in situ teaching where it isn’t essential. We want staff wellbeing to be protected, and stress must be reduced. Educational provision must be protected. We need you to listen to staff and end in situ teaching where it is clearly detrimental.

Response from Senior Management 20th October 2020

Dear Mariangela, Phil and Becky

As promised, we discussed the points you raised when we last met, at both the University Advisory Group (UAG) and Academic Strategy Group (ASG). We also had the opportunity to raise your concerns at Council on Friday. We now write to respond, using the statement you forwarded to us following the meeting last week.

Thank you for acknowledging the work we have done over the summer and recognition that we have and continue to provide a safe working environment for all staff. We also acknowledge the contribution made by UCU and the other campus trade unions in working with us to ensure that health and safety and welfare of students are staff is prioritised.

The nature of our blended and socially distanced approach has resulted in no reported cases of infection as a result of face-to-face teaching and levels of infection in our student body are somewhat below that being reported in the local community. While we must not be complacent, the significant fall in the number of students self-isolating, is encouraging. At the same time, a range of data we monitor suggests that our campus operations have been reduced by as much as 90%, relative to this time last year. The reality is that the vast majority of teaching is currently being delivered on-line, supplemented by a small amount of in-situ delivery which is designed to enhance the learning experience for our students and to address their expectations and wishes in providing a “close to normal” University experience. As you point out, programmes involving practical lab classes and clinical skills etc necessarily contain more in situ content. In all cases, where in situ is teaching is happening, robust safety measures are in place so that staff can be assured that they are operating a Covid Secure work environment where risks of transmission are mitigated.

In line with the main theme at the meeting that Mark Bacon and I held with you last week, our discussions at UAG and ASG recognised that for a small number of staff, the risks of infection from COVID-19, while extremely low, are perceived as much higher in some members of staff and that this may lead to significant levels of anxiety. We would therefore like to move quickly to ensure these specific members of staff are supported in such a way as to not have to feel compelled to deliver face-to-face teaching. Deans have agreed to work with Heads of School to quickly identify these members of staff and to accommodate a request for them not to deliver sessions in situ. Staff in this situation will therefore be given a choice whether they want/feel/are able to deliver in situ teaching and not be forced into it, should this result in significant levels of anxiety.

To summarise, we take very seriously the issue of staff wellbeing and agree with you that, where staff are experiencing mental health challenges linked to their perceptions of the risk of infection associated with in situ teaching, they must be appropriately supported. As an action from ASG this morning HR will work quickly to establish a simple process for Heads of School to receive notifications from staff who find themselves in this position, in order that we can look to adjust their working environments whilst ensuring, at the same time, that any negative impact for our student cohorts can be addressed.

All good wishes

Rachel [Adams – Head of HR]