College lecturers should ‘walk away’ from unsafe classrooms, says union

Tens of thousands of staff and students returning to college campuses this week

Students back on  campus of Maynooth University in  Co Kildare. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

Students back on campus of Maynooth University in Co Kildare. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill

 

College lecturers should walk away from classrooms if they do not feel safe, a union has warned its members.

The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which represents 4,500 academic staff in institutes of technology and technological universities, said it was “seriously concerned” at the failure of some management to conduct risk assessments for lecture halls and other teaching spaces.

Tens of thousands of staff and students are returning to college campuses this week. In many cases, in-person lectures are resuming with little physical distancing for the first time since March 2020.

TUI president Martin Marjoram said there was anxiety around the continuing risks and challenges posed by Covid-19, particularly in relation to the more transmissible Delta variant.

“We’ve had members telling us that they are going into classrooms feeling unsafe and where it’s not clear that risk assessments have been carried out,” he said.

Mr Marjoram said teachers are entitled to cancel lectures for health and safety reasons such as where some students are refusing to wear face masks or where there is inadequate ventilation.

“In these circumstances, we’re saying that members should inform management that a room isn’t safe and report that they are available to work either remotely or in another room with mitigation measures,” he said.

Mr Marjoram said the union was “very disappointed” at the level of transparency provided by some college management over risk assessments or inconsistencies over risk mitigation measures.

While the Department of Education provided “very clear” guidelines over safety measures, he said the Department of Further and Higher Education had left much of the interpretation over risk mitigation up to individual institutions.

“Members are talking to others where there are very different approaches and there still isn’t clarity on issues such as whether a vaccine cert is needed to access a canteen or not,” he said.

Under Government rules, further and higher education institutions have the autonomy and flexibility to risk assess and adapt rules in respect of their specific settings.

Official guidance from the Department of Further and Higher Education states there are instances - such as lectures and practicals - where recommended physical distancing is not feasible.

In these cases, it says, there should be other precautionary measures in place such as ventilation, modified entry and egress to minimise congregation, hand sanitising and the wearing of face coverings.

A spokeswoman for the department said it was essential that institutions can make their own plans for reopening, recognising their own local context and physical infrastructure, and communicate these plans to their learners and staff.

“This approach to facilitating institutional planning has been endorsed by the Chief Medical Officer,” she said.

“The department continues to stress the need for local engagement between management, staff and students. The department will meet with representatives again on Friday to discuss these plans,” the spokeswoman added.

Mr Marjoram said risk assessments were vital for all classrooms, practical rooms, lecture halls and communal areas.

In cases where this has not happened or where there is a lack of clarity on whether they have, he said union representatives should address these issues locally.

However, he called on the Department of Further and Higher Education to do much more to audit and ensure nationwide adherence to essential safety measures.

“There can be no short cuts taken where health and safety is concerned,” he said.

He argued that now, more than ever, significant additional funding be provided as a matter of urgency.

“With a significant projected increase in student numbers at third level, urgent action must be taken to finally address the funding crisis in the higher education sector,” he said.

“In this regard, we are warning once again that in the move by consortia of institutes towards technological university status, significant additional funding must be provided. Regrettably, we are yet to be convinced that this fundamental necessity is understood by Government.’