Omicron: move teaching online for last week of term, says UCU

UK union says continuing face-to-face tuition puts staff and students in ‘unnecessary danger’

December 10, 2021
Cambridge, UK, 19-12-2020. Signage on public path advising people to keep distance whilst out shopping,
Source: iStock

The UK’s main higher education union has called for universities to move their teaching online for the final week of term, amid mounting concern about the spread of the Omicron variant.

Westminster government guidance has called on English institutions to continue face-to-face tuition, but the University and College Union (UCU) said that this put staff and students in “unnecessary danger”.

The union also called for the wearing of face coverings to be made mandatory – except for those exempt – on campuses, including in lecture theatres and classrooms.

And it said that new risk assessments and mitigation measures should be put in place to protect staff and students against the new Covid-19 variant, especially before the start of the spring term.

The call comes after Imperial College London moved non-essential teaching online for the final days of term, in response to “rapidly rising” coronavirus case numbers, including Omicron.

The University of Oxford also reported a 33 per cent increase in Covid cases in the space of a week, with many of these confirmed as being the Omicron variant.

Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary, said that the safety of staff and students “must be the priority”.

“Instructions to move online in universities for the final week are the most sensible temporary measure and will allow university students to return home rather than risk unnecessary infection and isolation in their accommodation over Christmas. This will also allow the sector to re-evaluate whilst scientists get to grips with the emerging picture presented by Omicron,” Dr Grady said.

“In both colleges and universities we need new rapid risk assessments and measures in place which must include allowing staff who can work from home to do so. We also want to see the mandated wearing of masks for any staff and students on site, including in areas where lessons and lectures are still taking place. 

“Last year, ministers moved too slowly, effectively denying there was a need to suspend in-person activities while new variants developed, leading to mass outbreaks. We can avoid that situation by moving the final week online.”

The DfE guidance says that administrative staff who are not involved in the delivery of face-to-face tuition should work from home where possible, but that the “majority” of staff are expected on campus to deliver teaching and support services.

Many UK universities have been delivering large lectures online during the autumn term because of concerns over Covid-19, but most smaller group teaching has been taking place in person.

A Universities UK spokesman said institutions “recognise the need for proportionate additional safety measures, particularly in light of emerging variants”.

“Universities are working closely with the health authorities and relevant government departments and will follow the most up-to-date public health advice to help keep the university community safe. All universities have outbreak plans agreed to prepare for any spike in cases including support for students or staff who need to self-isolate,” the spokesman said.

Times Higher Education survey published in September found that 53 per cent of respondents did not feel safe returning to face-to-face teaching or on-campus working while coronavirus case numbers remained high. Only 28 per cent of respondents said that they did feel safe, with 19 per cent unsure.

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Reader's comments (2)

Luckily, not a decision I have to make since term has finished but I would not hesitate to go in if needed.
students didn't want teaching this week either - they don't want to risk taking an infection home and one accused the university of being reckless. There will be vulnerable staff on public transport coming in to teach tiny numbers and trying to support those at home - for the sake of a week it would have been better to take the line most consistent with protecting public health. the DfE needs to wake up to the fact that universities are not big schools.