Five Red Lines Redux: Move Autumn Teaching Online Now

In June 2020, Warwick UCU developed its “Five Red Lines” document, outlining the conditions necessary to ensure that the move to reopen campus occurs safely. These lines are as follows: (1) safe in society; (2) safe on campus; (3) safe university buildings; (4) safe for all colleagues; and (5) safer communication.

We have been monitoring the situation carefully over the past three months, in close contact with the University – participating in risk assessments, sitting on campus reopening working groups, and meeting with senior managers weekly to discuss health and safety issues. On the basis of these experiences, it has become clear to us that the only way to open campus safely is to move the bulk of teaching (except where pedagogically unfeasible, such as certain labs) online for the autumn term.

We do not come to this conclusion lightly. Nearly all those who teach would, under normal circumstances, prefer to do so in person. But there is a growing consensus among public health officials, including government scientists, that the attempt by universities to operate as close to normal as possible is courting disaster (Dickenson 2020a; Dickenson 2020b). As many other institutions (including Harvard and Yale Universities in the US) have come to recognise, a return to teaching in person this September will create significant risks for both public health and educational outcomes. The most recent news from the US only confirms fears that in-person teaching will lead to surges in new cases.

Universities risk becoming sites of mass infection, so we must act now. We spell out why this is the case below.

First, we are calling on Warwick to act decisively as a sector leader and move the autumn term wholly online now, with adequate time for all to prepare their teaching accordingly. This is not just for the health of teachers and students, but for all workers employed by Warwick and for the broader West Midlands community, whose health and safety will be compromised by a return to business as usual. Second, we call on Warwick to work with Universities UK to lobby much more forcefully for a substantive university bailout package, one that will better enable universities across the country to prioritise the health and safety of their staff, students and surrounding communities. No one should have to choose between their livelihoods and their lives.

Our conclusions regarding a safe return to work are based on the following factors.

  • The R number is not falling

In June we wrote that “New cases of Covid-19 need to be low and falling, with a sustained downward trend and confidence that all new cases can be identified and responded to promptly.” Unfortunately, there are over 1000 new cases a day, which is in breach of the government’s own targets. As of early August, the R number is not falling, but has instead remained level and in many regions is rising. This return to the higher infection rates of April and May has led to a series of localised lockdowns, including declaration of a ‘major incident’ in Manchester. The University currently has no plan in place for dealing with a localised lockdown, either in Coventry itself or in the surrounding commuter belt where staff and students live. If Covid-19 were to enter the campus community it is likely that infection rates would rise sharply, endangering the health of staff and students alike.

  • Commuting patterns at Warwick have public health implications for the entire West Midlands community

Because Warwick is a commuter campus, with staff traveling from across the country and even the EU, we are concerned that those who live in regions with high infection rates will feel compelled to resume face-to-face (f2f) teaching due to university directives. The risk is that they will transmit the virus not only on campus but also to the wider Coventry community. We have yet to see any comprehensive analysis of how a mass return to campus will impact public transport, local infrastructure and healthcare in Coventry and surrounding areas. Aside from the risk to the University community itself, this negligence undermines the University’s commitment to being a “good neighbour” in Warwickshire and the West Midlands.

  • Classrooms are not ‘Covid-secure’

The University’s position is that between 50% and 75% of all small group teaching should be f2f next term. Yet risk assessments reveal that campus lacks the necessary capacity for this target, once logistical complexities of transitions, queuing, waiting between contact times and cleaning regimes are considered. We do not consider the University’s current health and safety plans for classrooms to be adequate (for e.g., there are no plans to stagger session times; no extensive cleaning planned between sessions; and only 10-15 minute transition times scheduled between classes, which does not permit one set of students to leave and another to enter safely). We are particularly worried about the use of classrooms without windows or adequate ventilation, especially given growing empirical evidence that Covid-19 is primarily airborne (Setti et al 2020; Bahl 2020).  Finally, while other universities have been acquiring new equipment to improve their sanitation regimes, including state-of-the-art UV cleaning robots, Warwick has made no such investment, which suggests that more risks will have to be taken by cleaning staff. 

These factors lead us to conclude that Warwick’s classrooms are, simply put, unsafe spaces for teaching staff, cleaning staff, and students in a pandemic.

  • The University’s health and safety guidance for students is inadequate

The University’s guidelines to new students for social mixing, reporting cases and self-isolating will only create unacceptable risks. It’s unclear, for instance, how the designation of “kitchen units” will work in practice, and what obligations members of these units will have toward each other. Moreover, because these “kitchen units” don’t overlap with students’ home departments, years or classes, they pose additional risks of transmission on campus. Members of the University’s cleaning team are also raising concerns. One such staff member (who asked to remain anonymous) explained, “there doesn’t seem to be a Risk Assessment for when students are in residence, or if there is we haven’t seen it.” This member also raised a number of other issues such as bathroom cleaning provision, staffing numbers, and staff feeling pressured to come back to work when it doesn’t feel safe.

Further, the University’s advice to students asks that students report only confirmed cases of Covid infection. This directive makes it more likely that new cases will lead to uncontrolled rates of transmission before test results are made public, and will make it virtually impossible to contain any outbreaks. A wider concern is that Covid-19 is often asymptomatic, and thus that infection can spread significantly before the manifestation of symptoms triggers intervention.

  • Face-to-face teaching is not safe for all colleagues

Although there is an equalities impact assessment for the return to campus, there have been no such assessments regarding the differential risks relating to BAME staff, disabled staff, older staff and staff in other categories who may be more vulnerable to the virus. Nor are there plans in place for ensuring the safety of colleagues who carry such differential risks.

  • The University’s communications have been neither safe nor clear

The University has failed to communicate clearly with staff on a number of urgent issues: how will an individual’s risk level will be properly assessed; what kinds of accommodations can or will be made for different risk categories; who will be compelled to teach f2f; under what conditions will the University will move to online teaching; and how the University will deal with a second wave of infection. The University has also refused to factor in the increased workload staff will face this year (beyond positing a risible “two extra hours a week” for adaptation purposes), nor has it acknowledged the risks posed by increased workloads to the mental and physical health of already overburdened staff members.

At the same time, the University’s cavalier communications to incoming students (“You may be a little concerned about how Covid-19 will impact your experience with us, but there’s no need to worry”) suggest that it has failed to absorb the baseline truth that staff working conditions are students’ learning conditions. Prioritising a near-normal ‘student experience’ over staff welfare in abnormal circumstances is a recipe for satisfying no one and endangering all. Rather than imposing coercive targets from above, the University would do better to trust the responsiveness and creativity of staff and students alike when working in conditions of crisis. The temporary provision of online teaching is far preferable as an option to unwieldy and unworkable adaptations of in-person teaching to meet the challenges of Covid-security.

As a union, we will continue to support ongoing risk assessment processes to help ensure that that any return to campus is as safe as possible, but we do so with the belief that the only way to truly ensure the safety of our colleagues and students is to make online teaching the default position for Term 1.

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