By Kiara Davies
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. “
Image: Amana Moore