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Joint statement by University of Sussex campus unions on reopening for teaching this term


Published on 8th September 2020 at 15:54.

This week, the news has been full of concerns about students returning to campus. Our government has failed to get the virus under control and is now beginning to pre-emptively blame students for increased rates of infection. 

Sussex University, driven by a lack of government support to compete with other institutions, is rushing to fully reopen before we know it is safe to do so. 

At the Students' Union, we will always put student welfare and learning first.

We have joined the other unions on campus - UCU, Unite, and Unison - in releasing this statement and list of demands on teaching and the reopening of campus. We're going to be explaining why we feel taking this position is best for students, and going through each of the demands over the next few days.

Since the University of Sussex moved teaching and professional services online in March, the campus unions have been in negotiations and attempted negotiations with University management regarding the means of safely re-opening for teaching in the autumn. However in light of recent scientific evidence and the increasing national incidence of Covid-19 we now believe that the University's currently advertised plans are inadequate to ensure a safe reopening.     

In agreeing the following statement we have been especially guided by the Independent SAGE report on universities (20 August), the BMJ editorial 'Re-opening universities is high risk' (1 September) and the SAGE paper on SARS-CoV-2 transmission in higher education (4 September).   

We are also guided by Warwick UCU's call to move teaching online (18 August)UCU's national call on reopening campuses (29 August), the UCU event on reopening universities and colleges (1 September), and internal statements we have seen from other unions.    

We have also taken account of moves towards all-online teaching provision next term at other universities, including St AndrewsQMULUCL and Birkbeck

To ensure the safety of students, staff, and wider community, we jointly call on the University to adopt the principle for the autumn term that anything that can be done off campus, should be done off campus.

Every unnecessary footfall on campus increases the danger of an outbreak in the university community and endangers the continuation of those activities that need to be done on campus. 

We believe the management should also give up misusing the word 'essential' to designate any role that can only be done on campus. There are many roles, including most teaching and professional services roles, that are essential to the running of the university but that can be done off campus.

We also call on the University:

(1) To move all teaching online for the autumn term, with the exception of any necessary lab-based and practice-based teaching.

This is the recommendation of the Independent SAGE report and the UCU national call. In the case of lab-based and practice-based teaching the teaching mode should be decided by the teaching and technical staff involved.

(2) To allow students to cancel or defer accommodation contracts with the University without penalties if they wish to.

This will demonstrate that the University is not prioritising financial concerns over the health of students and staff.

(3) To continue to welcome to campus and provide support for those students who feel they cannot study effectively at home.   

Please see the statement by Larissa Kennedy, NUS President, in the UCU event on reopening universities and colleges (from 27:50) explaining the kinds of circumstances involved.

(4) To ensure that students who decide not to move to campus or the Brighton area are properly supported to undertake their studies from home.   

In particular, the University needs to ensure that students studying from home have adequate wifi connections, equipment to access teaching, and pastoral support.

(5) To confirm in writing to staff and line managers that return to work on campus this term will be on a voluntary basis.

This follows the staff news item of 23 July, which stated 'Wherever possible, any roles deemed essential to be performed on campus will be filled by members of staff who are happy to volunteer to be on campus', and which asked returning staff to complete a form to confirm that their return is voluntary. 

Arrangements should be made that, subject to individual risk assessments alongside building risk assessments, those staff who may wish to work on campus are utilised to perform necessary roles that can only be done on campus.

(6) To guarantee that staff who do not opt to work on campus and who can work from home will not suffer any loss of income, job security or detriment to career progression.

(7) To establish arrangements to carefully monitor the mental health and stress levels of all staff and to ensure action is taken in case of any concerns.

The Health and Safety Executive Management Standards set out ‘six key areas of work design that, if not properly managed, are associated with poor health, lower productivity and increased accident and sickness absence rates’. All six of these are in flux in the current context, and thus require active and consistent risk assessment.  

(8) To adopt the principle that all interactions that need to take place on campus will be done with mitigations to ensure the lowest level of risk as assessed by the recent BMJ article 'Two metres or one: what is the evidence for physical distancing in Covid-19?' (25 August)

Please see figure 3 of this article. In particular, it requires that for all prolonged indoor interactions such as teaching there should be all three of: a well ventilated space, social distancing of 2 metres, and the wearing of face coverings. By 'well ventilated' we understand the six air changes per hour recommended as a minimum by the US CDC in their Guidelines for environmental infection control in health-care facilities (July 2019), p.50, whether this is achieved by ventilation systems or by window opening.

(9) To test all students for Covid-19 on or before arrival and thereafter regularly throughout the term, or else to take measures that will be similarly effective in preventing outbreaks in the university community

It is now generally accepted that comprehensive and regular testing is the only way to prevent outbreaks at universities. Cardiff, Portsmouth and UEA are taking steps in this direction. 

(10) To commit to publishing a daily dashboard showing the numbers of tests, cases, hospital admissions, and deaths among students and staff.

A large number of universities in the US publish daily dashboards, and the BMJ editorial referred to above rightly says that they are needed for both transparency and accountability. 

We request an immediate meeting between representatives of UEG, UCU, Unite, Unison and USSU to discuss how the above points can be implemented.

 

Sussex UCU Executive 

University of Sussex Students Union

Sussex Unite Branch Committee

Sussex Unison Branch Committee (points 5-10)