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Essex insists face-to-face teaching can be safe

University confirms plans for some socially distanced contact after complaints from staff about ‘dangerous’ move

The University of Essex has said it believes in-person teaching can be safe, after dozens of researchers called for the institution to abandon any plans for face-to-face contact in the new academic year as the Covid-19 pandemic continues.

Susie Morgan, director of people and culture at the university, confirmed that some face-to-face teaching was planned for Essex’s 15,000 students starting from next term, although “all larger classes, for example lectures” would be delivered online.

In an open letter sent this month to the university, around 50 staff and PhD students warned they had “serious concern” about face-to-face teaching. While acknowledging that the institution’s plans were not finalised, they said the move could be “dangerous” and undermine staff and student health. 

“The provisional nature of the plans is part of the problem,” they wrote. “The uncertainty that it creates is an additional source of stress in a situation which, for many, is already stressful enough…University management has so far refused to say whether staff who refuse to return to [face-to-face] teaching will be disciplined, or even fired.” 

In response, Morgan said: “We take the health, safety and wellbeing of our staff and students very seriously and plans will be in place to protect all our community as staff and students return to our campuses.

“The University of Essex is among the vast majority of universities in the UK which will be delivering a blend of face-to-face and online learning next term…Where face-to-face teaching is taking place, appropriate social distancing and other measures to ensure a safe teaching environment for students and staff will be in place.”

The university did not respond to the question of what would happen to staff who refused to return to face-to-face teaching. But Morgan said: “We have been in consultation with our campus trade unions and safety representatives throughout all stages of planning.”