Over 100 staff demand halt to in-person teaching in open letter


A group of Durham University staff have penned an open letter to the Vice-Chancellor, Stuart Corbridge, to request that all non-essential face-to-face teaching cease immediately.

The letter acknowledges the University’s health and safety measures to prepare for teaching in Covid-19 conditions, but argues that these preparations have been overtaken by the “intensity and speed of the second wave and are now dangerously inadequate”.

Within 12 hours of being published, the letter had received over 90 signatures from University staff.

“Covid-19 can be a debilitating illness, with long-term and even permanent consequences, for anyone. Limiting opt-outs [of face-to-face teaching] to teaching staff with underlying health or mental health conditions is thus inadequate.”

In making the case, the letter points to the decisions of the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University to suspend all non-essential on-site teaching after reporting large outbreaks.

The University announced on Thursday 15th October that there were 964 new confirmed cases amongst students and staff. This makes Durham the fifth worst-affected university in the UK in absolute figures.

This follows the release of documents from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) committee, showing that four weeks ago it had advised all universities to revert to online teaching.

A member of the University Senate told Palatinate: “There was a sense at the beginning of the summer that the University was taking precautions in order to teach this term, but there has been very little transparency or consultation about health and safety measures. There was no consultation whatsoever with staff about face-to-face teaching.”

They continued: “We feel really bad for students, because Durham has, like many universities, sold students a lie… Universities told students ‘come to campus, we will have face to face teaching’, but the reality is that this is not a realistic possibility.”

The member of staff also commented on the anxiety many felt, with some remarking that over half of seminar classes had been forced to self-isolate.

They remarked: “We are a big university in a small town. Durham already has a high rate of infection, and we are very worried that we are contributing to the spread.”

“Staff are really demoralised, as students are too”, and “feel their complaints aren’t being listened to.”

Jeremy Cook, Durham University Pro-Vice Chancellor (Colleges and Student Experience), said: “The health, safety and wellbeing of our students, staff and the communities of which we are part has been our top priority throughout the Covid-19 pandemic and remains so.

“We have worked tirelessly to achieve as safe and successful a start to the new academic year as possible, including introducing a wide range of measures to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading and developing a comprehensive Outbreak Response Plan, which sets out how we would work with partners to respond to different possible scenarios and which has been approved by Durham County Council’s Public Health Team and the Department for Education.

“We are working very closely with partners including Durham County Council’s Public Health Team to ensure our planning is co-ordinated and we are in very regular contact with our students, staff and the local community to share the latest information and receive feedback. “


17 thoughts on “Over 100 staff demand halt to in-person teaching in open letter

  • Don’t worry, the university will agree after 31st October, when they get the first tuition fee payments, and the risk of first years packing it in falls. Happy Halloween

  • I have to say there is a very one sided argument to this lets point out a couple of things and feel free to shoot me down. Whilst the country are on furlough teachers have been payed full salaries. We are still paying full tuition. If this is going to happen there should be serious thought given to both A student tuition B faculty wages.

    Simply announcing staff and students are in the same boat is inaccurate at best and a straight up lie at worst.

    Irrespective of Covid 19 University is supposed to be a place of open learning and improving on the inequality that society reflects.

    It may be a good starting point to address the inequity of resources and staff availability in contrast to Tuition and Wages.

    • Quite an innacurate and narrow minded comment from Caritas. Teachers were not on furlough, they continued to work, whether state education or higher education, and so they got paid for that work. Is there something wrong with being paid for the work you do?
      This article discusses the withdrawal of rent payments, that is very different to the teaching side of universities.

    • Lecturers were not furloughed. They worked throughout the summer to plan for hybrid teaching, which takes much more effort and time than “normal” teaching. They are now working overtime in very stressful conditions. This is not a satisfactory situation for either students or lecturers, but to imply that the latter have just been coasting is disrespectful and plain wrong.

  • Teachers did not continue to work – unless you consider one day per fortnight working.
    Teachers are overpaid – over holidayed – and under worked all the time – but especially so during Covid-19.

    • I recommend you don’t speak about matters of which you are profoundly ignorant. Signed, a son of two teachers.

  • I bet they are happy for their own children to go to school
    I bet they are happy to be paid in full
    I bet they are happy with the best pensions in the country

    They just don’t want to work or teach their ‘customers’

    Stop the student tuition fee (about 45%of the income to a uni), reduce the lecturers salary by 45% then perhaps it may be a fair petition

    In my 3rd year… 6 weeks of strikes in year 1 and 2..no lectures since March… I supported the strikes…. But you have just pushed this student and their friends so far away and lost all our previous support

    Cake and eat it…

    • This is not primarily about lecturers on well-paid permanent contracts who have job security and are better-placed to push for protections without worrying about losing their jobs. It is primarily about casualised lecturers and TAs who do not have job security and who might not even be earning above minimum wage when all hours worked are taken into account if you dropped their wages by 45%. These casualised staff – who make up an increasing proportion of teaching staff at universities – do not have the necessary job security to stand up to their departments who are forcing them to teach in-person in a context that has gone from pretty low rates before term started to one of the nationwide hotspots in just three weeks.

      The university is risking the lives of these economically and often medically vulnerable people, in opposition to a survey about staff preferences, based on no surveys or other data about student preferences, and with no clear pedagogical basis for why mixed learning or socially-distanced shared-air teaching is better than online teaching in these times. This is in contravention of SAGE and Independent SAGE advice to halt in-person teaching. It’s also in contravention of government advice to people in all three tiers of lockdown to work at home if we can do so effectively.

      No student is being forced to attend in-person classes and no staff member should be forced to teach in-person either.

    • Well said!
      We wouldn’t want them to catch nasty flu like symptoms.

    • So students are customers while teachers are service providers ? This is utterly disrespectful. Another issue is that the teaching staff work as hard during the pandemic and they still have to do their research. On top of that, there isn’t any difference in teaching quality between in persona and face to face. In my law class last year, barely one third of the student go to lectures in person anyway and many students are very happy to hide behind the camera in a tutorial (Although I’m more active and in person suits me a bit better). At last, the strikes on pension is a labor right that you also have as an employee in another firm. They paid a slice of the wage for pensions and their pensions were suddenly cut without notice! Will you strike in their position? I bet you will. So stop looking at the matter like posh Tory who think you are entitled to everything when you have paid tuition fee (Which is mainly covered by government loans anyway).

      • Student loan* ……..

  • Universities will never admit that online learning is of inferior quality, as it will open them up to fee reduction requests.It is inferior.Contributions are stunted by lack of body language, the physical presence in a seminar produces an enriching dynamic and lends itself to verbal and non verbal interaction.It just is not the same.It will be interesting to see how universities try to sell this’ hybrid’ model to 2021 applicants,as by and large it hasn’t happened has it?

  • Online teaching and learning is inferior to face-to-face teaching and learning.

    What is considerably *more* inferior is causing a massive Covid spike for the sake of socially-distanced mask-to-mask teaching and learning (a spike which will lead to deaths and to Long Covid for many in the University community and the local Durham community, and contribute to prolonging the social/economic/health hellhole this country is in – more than most other countries – due to consistently incompetent management of the pandemic by govt and other powerful bodies).

    • But face to face teaching has not caused a spike has it? University staff are not facing any higher risk than any other sector delivering face to face services are they?

      • Well, the answer to that question is different depending on whether you mean directly or indirectly.

        Directly, mask-to-mask/shared-air teaching has been proven to cause transmission in other teaching contexts. They don’t know if it’s caused transmission at Durham because Durham management deliberately doesn’t contact-trace in teaching spaces, and uses its own definition of “close contact” that excludes having shared a lecture or seminar room with someone. (If they used the NHS definition of close contact, everyone who’d shared a classroom with someone who tests positive would have to self-isolate. But under Durham policy, you’re not even notified if someone sitting the next desk over from you tested positive.)

        Indirectly, mask-to-mask/shared-air teaching has most definitely caused a massive spike in Durham, because if all teaching was online this term, thousands of students would not have had to come to Durham. Predictably, just as happened a few weeks earlier in nearby Newcastle, the big migration of students to Durham caused the huge spike we are currently experiencing. (It’s worth reflecting on just how dire the numbers are. In just three and a half weeks, 7.51% of the entire Durham community have tested positive according to the UCU Covid dashboard: https://www.ucu.org.uk/covid-dashboard. This % would be even higher if you just did the numbers for students, or just students living locally, or just undergrad students. And as everyone knows, numbers of positive tests are a significant underestimate of the true scale of cases, because the underresourced NHS only tests you if you have one of the big three symptoms, so it rarely detects asymptomatic cases. Meanwhile, the university spike has quickly made Durham City the MSOA with the most new cases in the UK.)

        As for the comparison with other sectors delivering face to face services: Well, I certainly feel for medical staff and for people whose jobs place them at the highest risk. It’s not a competition about who’s facing the most risk, though. To minimise risk – not least, the risk to people who have to work face to face – those of us who can work from home should do so, especially when the pandemic is surging like in Durham currently.

        This is why government advice tells us to do just that: to work from home if we can effectively do so. Government advice actually urges everyone in all three levels of lockdown to do this currently. And this is the Tory government’s lax and ineffective half-measures advice (not a proper lockdown like what they had in New Zealand, which was far more successful in quickly eliminating the virus and getting that country back to relative normal). Durham’s profit-driven policy is even more lax than the Dominic Cummings government is, and people are sick and dying as a result.

        • Well this just goes back to my original point Online tuition is nowhere near the same quality as face to face.I would argue seminar leaders cannot work effectively from home.

          • How is that so? If you are willing to ask and answer questions, its still the same for you. It is only worse for students who think they dont have to prepare for the tutorial when they are behind the screen or students who aren’t willing to speak up.

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