‘Colleagues are penalised for raising health and safety issues’: a lecturer’s freshers’ week diary | Education

My colleagues and I set foot on campus for the first time since March. We had to schedule a time to visit as it’s still too dangerous for too many people to be present. This gives us an hour to understand how things work in our “Covid-secure” campus, just days before students start returning.

Most of us are pretty nervous about visiting the campus for personal reasons (children at home, ageing parents, partners who work for the NHS). Reports of the role universities are playing in new cases worry us, too. Several colleagues had something that swept through our overcrowded offices in February and early March which many of us now think was coronavirus. Members of staff and students’ families have died from the virus.

We have been assured by the university’s management that all is in place for face-to-face teaching: everything deep cleaned, numerous hand sanitiser stations, social distancing in classrooms, masks required in shared areas, one-way systems.

But that’s not the reality. The carpets and walls in many classrooms look dirty. Our offices are just as we left them – grotty tea cups and all. It looks like a ghost town. There are only a few hand sanitiser stations scattered throughout the building.

The shields in some classrooms look very DIY; one protective shield in a seminar room might actually be a clear shower curtain. We’re supposed to teach students whose desks are way too close to us behind a makeshift plastic sheet. In another, screens separating desks are made of some kind of painted plywood. Students sitting there wouldn’t be able to see their lecturer.

The university is telling students that, although obligatory in hallways and communal areas, masks will not be required in classrooms. We’re in classrooms for hours at a time, often working at close proximity to students. The university has told us to buy our own face shields if we want them.

The only thing that has been fully completed is the placement of signs everywhere declaring that the building is Covid-secure, as if saying it makes it true. Trying to figure out the route to my classrooms, I follow the new one-way system arrows only to run into a “do not enter” sign. I stare at the red circle, confused as to my next move. How will hundreds of students manage this?

I host a Zoom Q&A for returning students. Many are deciding to stay at home and continue their classes remotely. Quite a few think cities aren’t safe, or that Britain isn’t taking this seriously enough. Some have doubts about the university’s readiness. I agree with them, but am supposed to pretend that all is well.

Most of my students are not party animals, contrary to what you see in media coverage. They are taking this seriously, and have deep concerns. In March, several of themnervously asked me to start teaching online since Covid was spreading through the halls of residence and they needed to go home to their families. As a result, I went online before the government and the university required us to do so. If the UK had locked down that same week, tens of thousands of people might not have died. The current musings from scientists about doing too little, too late this time around fill me with an eerie deja vu.

Suddenly, the government has announced new precautions, including the rule of six. All of our timetables will have to change, and smaller groups will mean we have to teach the same class multiple times. No one has spoken to us about workload. Several of my colleagues are starting to have anxiety issues. Again. The semester hasn’t even started and I’m exhausted. Again.

One of my students asks if we can chat on the phone. Normally students stop seeing me in June, but not this year. We’ve been having to provide a lot more support, which we’re not trained for. All summer, students have asked me an academic question then quickly shifted to talking about their loneliness, financial worries, family dysfunction in close quarters, anxiety, depression and fears about the future. I am not a counsellor, but I do what I can.

The student I’m talking to has already lost several family members to the virus. She’s calling because she can’t afford a better internet connection and computer. She’s worried that it’s affecting her studies. I tell her that she can now come to campus to use the computers. She goes silent. I ask her what’s wrong.

She’s embarrassed to say that she’s afraid to come to campus, because she doesn’t want to start another Covid cycle in her family. She asks whether people will be wearing masks. I tell her that I require it in my classroom, but the university only expects it in hallways. That brings a derisive: “Hmmph”. She asks if the university will be checking temperatures when students arrive. I tell her no. She laughs and says: “Well I’ll bring my temperature gun and we’ll make a game of it.”

Our approach to freshers’ week is a mix of online and offline activities. There’s more emphasis on freshers being on campus for induction and teaching so they can have the “university experience”. My colleagues and I have noticed the management team’s obsession with this idea. They think that by offering a lot of face-to-face teaching we were able to be more competitive with universities which were more conservative about opening their campuses.

Given the new government guidance, our students’ union’s freshers’ plans are cancelled. We only just averted a hundred-person BBQ with drinking games, a networking event at a popular bar venue, a foam party at a nightclub, and a karaoke night by about 24 hours. Though we all feel bad that young people don’t get to have all the fun we did at uni, my colleagues and I weren’t excited about being face-to-face with people who had attended a string of parties.

Other universities have locked their students down in halls of residence, and the return of students to university areas seems to be causing outbreaks. Is anyone actually surprised? Another worrying headline: scientists think universities should only have a third of their students on campus. We have more than two-thirds of our student body returning, so we may have a lot of work to redo timetables.

Today we were all supposed to attend an induction event for freshers on campus, but only half of us are here. A few of my colleagues objected, citing the government’s latest directive about doing everything you can from home.

I came to avoid the inevitable hassle of getting penalised for complaining. Many of my colleagues who have raised health and safety issues have been given extra work or had their teaching preparation efforts weirdly scrutinised.

I have to take public transport at rush hour to attend. It is crowded in spite of the government’s new instructions. When I arrive, the students are bored with the endless PowerPoint presentations.At the end, I hear one saying to agreement from some others: “Glad I risked my life for that. They should have done all this online.”

I see another group of students who have followed the one-way arrows and made it to the end of the hallway where I had found myself trapped on Monday. “How do we get out of here?” they shout.

I am not sure how to answer.

The headline on this article was amended on 2 October 2020 to better reflect the main issues in the diary.

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