In a post on the University and College Union (UCU) website, the group warned that universities will become “the care homes of a Covid second wave” if action is not taken.
The article specified: “The union fears that the migration of over a million students across the UK risks doing untold damage to people’s health and exacerbating the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes.” The UCU cited the recent A-Levels crisis and the trend of campus closures in the US as warning signs of the dangers reopening campus and holding in-person lessons would pose for both students and staff.
The union agrees that “there would be challenges switching from blended learning to online”, but believes the risks outweigh the difficulties, and that preemptive action is preferable to “a U-turn that would be too late even by this government’s standards”. UCU general secretary Jo Grady stated: “Refusing to act now will only store up problems further down the line as courses are forced to move online and students forced into lockdown.
“It is no good blaming students later on for a problem that could have been avoided by government action. We need to move all teaching online for the first term of the new academic year, as recommended by Independent Sage, and the government needs to underwrite any lost funding for the sector.”
UCU's call to scrap plans to reopen campuses next month makes the front page of The Observer.
— UCU (@ucu) August 29, 2020
A new list of guidelines for UK universities supplied alongside the UCU article includes stipulations for masks to be worn in all indoor spaces, no in-person teaching, and sufficient systems for personal and facility sanitisation, testing, tracing, and quarantine measures.
In a statement to Times Higher Education, Universities UK president Julia Buckingham stated: “Universities tell us that many staff want to return to in-person teaching, research and other activities where it is safe and appropriate to do so and are mindful of the benefits of in-person teaching and support for students’ well-being and development. The dedication shown by staff throughout the lockdown and into recovery has been remarkable, and we hope that UCU will continue to engage constructively with university leaders as the sector prepares for the start of term.”
Professor Jonathan Ball of the University of Nottingham echoed that sentiment, telling the BBC that “we have to allow these students to get the education that they have worked hard for – and to enjoy university life as much as is possible at the moment”. Professor Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at Oxford, stated that it is “as safe as it has ever been” to return to campus, but that universities could put off face-to-face teaching until spring/summer 2021 to further decrease risk.
King’s administration announced in June that campuses would be reopening for the upcoming academic year. The King’s Covid-19 FAQ page still reflects this decision, while also describing the safety measures to be implemented: “Personal safety and personal health and well-being of our students and staff are the top priority of the university. We are following the guidance set out by UK Government and Public Health England.
“Measures in place will include safe distancing across the King’s estate, provision of hand sanitiser and portable hand wash stations at main entrances and in common spaces and an enhanced cleaning regime across all university buildings. We expect students and staff to wear face coverings when they are in our buildings, recognising that not everyone will be able to wear one due to medical conditions.”
Students will also be told to inform the university if they are self-isolating as the result of a Covid-19 risk or infection. Regarding in-person teaching, King’s has stated that “returning to campus during July is by mutual agreement with your manager”, with the term “manager” typically implying a student’s personal tutor or department head. King’s has yet to respond to the UCU statement.