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UCU motion on returning to face to face teaching – a response from UEB

Further to our recent email to UEB forwarding on our recently passed motion that raised members’ continued concerns about returning to face to face teaching, we have received a disappointing response from Richard Middleton, Chief Operating Officer.
From: Chief-Operating-Officer
Tue 05/10/2021 16:59
Dear Lucy

I reply to your email dated 30/09/21, sent to all members of the UEB.  I reply on their behalf.  Also thank you for sending me the notes of your EGM which took place on the 24th September.  This was before our regular meeting on Tuesday 28th September which did provide an opportunity for you to raise these and any other points.  I am disappointed that you chose not to discuss these in the forum set up for that very purpose.  I also note that union H&S representatives have continued to meet with Cathy Day (Director Health, Safety & Risk), using that appropriately as an opportunity to raise and resolve such issues.  Indeed Adam George Dunn (UCU Health & Safety representative) reported at the meeting on 28th September that he would not follow up the issue of ventilation at the meeting because he was having extensive and detailed discussions with Maurice Woodcock (Director of Estates Operations) that were making good progress.

In response to your 10 points:

  1. Clinically extremely vulnerable staff, or staff living with or caring for clinically extremely vulnerable people, must be allowed to work/teach from home, without detriment, for the 2021-22 academic year. 

The terms Clinically Vulnerable and Clinically Extremely Vulnerable were developed by the NHS during lockdown to help prioritise health services and to advise on shielding for those who had clinical conditions.   Since all shielding and the lockdown have now ended, Government  ‘Guidance for those who were previously considered clinically extremely vulnerable from COVID-19’ states ‘As a minimum, you should continue to follow the same guidance (provided to all) on staying safe and preventing the spread of COVID-19. You should consider advice from your health professional on whether additional precautions are right for you’.  

The University is very mindful of its duty of care under Health & Safety legislation and as such has strongly encouraged the uptake of full vaccination and regular testing.  We have developed guidance for vulnerable adults which enables employees to request a person specific risk assessment carried out in collaboration with their line manager.  This assessment will help to identify and implement additional control measures, where relevant to the specific vulnerability, which enable the employee to fulfil their role and meet organisational needs.   

  1. No staff member with concerns about the safety of their working environment should be compelled to work on-site until the University has satisfactorily addressed their concerns.

Throughout the pandemic the University has followed Government guidance to make the workplace as safe as reasonably practicable.  If employees have concerns about their workplace health and/or safety they should raise this in the first instance with their line manager who should work with them to identify their concerns and address them if they are able.  Employees can consult with their union appointed staff representative in addition to reporting incidents and near misses via the Health & Safety Incident Reporting system. 

3. Southampton UCU have not seen detailed data about ventilation in classrooms, despite numerous requests. Our H&S representatives need to urgently be supplied with quantitative data on each room cleared for teaching and shared occupancy.

As mentioned in my first paragraph I understand from our meeting on 28th September that Adam George Dunn as UCU rep is meeting with Maurice Woodcock to discuss this matter thoroughly.

4. If anyone feels that a room is not well-ventilated, they should be able to ask for it to be checked by Estates. UCU asks the university to provide portable CO2 monitors so colleagues can check rooms which may be unsafe and to regularly monitor ventilation in rooms.

 Maurice Woodcock addressed this issue at the meeting on 28th September.  The University is considering the potential contribution of CO2 monitors in teaching rooms.  Government guidance on this, from the DfE does not encourage this for universities and I am not aware of guidance on how to interpret CO2 monitor data in respect of Covid transmission risk.  We therefore continue to investigate the potential benefits of CO2 monitoring.

  1. Mask wearing should be mandatory in teaching spaces and other indoor shared spaces, and crowded outdoor areas, except for those with medical exemptions. Sufficient spare masks should be readily available. The University must ensure its communications around mask wearing are clear and consistent.

In July this year all legal restrictions were lifted included the use of social distancing and face coverings.  The University continues however to strongly encourage and expects staff and students to use face coverings indoors when moving around and in crowded spaces.   A crowded space is likely to include lecture theatres and seminars or any space where physical distancing affords a greater challenge. 

The University continues to provide face coverings for those who may have lost or forgotten theirs.  These are and will be available in teaching rooms.  The Government has made it very clear that some people will be exempt and that proof of such exemption should not be requested.  

Guidance on face coverings is available from the Health & Safety SharePoint site as it has been throughout the pandemic and there have been consistent and regularly repeated communications provided to all staff and students via Sussed and other communication channels.

  1. Clear guidance must be issued immediately to staff about what happens if a student or staff member in a class tests positive. If a staff member has to isolate, or care for isolating people, or they have numerous students in their class isolating, they must be allowed to switch to online.

From early 2020 the University has developed clear processes for line managers to report and manage local cases of COVID-19.  We also have an Outbreak Control and Response Plan for dealing with multiple cases which has been endorsed by the Directors of Public Health from both Southampton City Council and Hampshire County Council.  The plan and process are focused on the prevention of infection spread.  The need for self-isolation is no longer required for close contacts who are fully UK vaccinated (with the exception currently of students from overseas).  If someone does need to isolate they should speak with their line manager so that alternative temporary measures can be take e.g. substitution.  

  1. The University must commit to an active public campaign to encourage vaccinations and weekly testing for staff and students, and share anonymised data gathered through vaccination surveys with unions.

Vaccination and testing is already strongly encouraged, nationally by Government, locally by the Directors of Public Health and within the workplace by the University, including a video campaign used on all our digital channels. Vaccination data is held by the NHS and as such is subject to legal confidentiality which means it’s not readily available to the University.   A vaccination survey of students has recently been undertaken and anonymised results are available.

  1. Maintain social distancing by lowering room capacity where necessary to allow 1m+ to remain in place.

As mentioned at 5. above all legal restrictions were lifted in July, including social distancing.  The University chose to take a more cautious approach initially in line with our local authority partners by gradually removing social distancing, signage and one-way systems.  Our Principles document includes the following statement for the local management of shared spaces –  ‘Try and aim for 2 metres space between each person if at all practicable’.

  1. Ensure all managers are aware that a blended model of teaching is permissible in order to reduce the number of students and staff on campus at any given time.  

    This issue is addressed in the email from the Vice President (Education) circulated on 23 September.

  1. If a member of staff feels a classroom situation is unsafe; e.g. students are refusing to wear masks, the number of students exceeds the listed room capacity, or the ventilation is poor (windows will not open, for example), they should cancel the class and reschedule it online.

As stated at 2. above if a member of staff feels unsafe they should in the first instance inform their line manager.  It is quite possible that some people will not be wearing face coverings either because of exemption or another reason, but this doesn’t automatically make a space intrinsically unsafe.  All those attending should however be encouraged by the staff member, to wear a face-covering if at all possible.  Room capacity identified for the purpose of fire safety and emergency evacuation should not be exceeded.  

Room ventilation is extremely difficult to assess without full understanding of the ventilation type and how to measure it.  The Estates team have checked CLS and teaching spaces to ensure they meet the standards recommended by CIBSE and the HSE.  Any spaces which did not do so have been taken out of use.  Rooms which only have natural ventilation should have opening windows that the attending staff member can check and open if not open already.

Richard Middleton

Chief Operating Officer

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