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Some colleges have not engaged adequately with staff over safe return to campus, union claims

TUI says lecturers should not hold in-person classes if they feel unsafe


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A lecturers’ union claims some third-level colleges have not engaged adequately with staff around plans for a safe return to campus.

Colleges of higher education are in the process of re-opening fully for the first time in 18 months.

But the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI) said there are inconsistencies in the approaches being taken by college authorities.

Its president, Martin Marjoram, has said lecturers should not hold in-person classes if they do not feel safe.

The TUI, which represents 4,500 academic staff in institutes of technology and technological universities, said it was “seriously concerned by the failure to date of some managements to engage and communicate with employees in a meaningful and timely manner.”

The union has called on the Department of Further and Higher Education to ensure nationwide adherence to key protective measures.

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

He said in addition to key mitigation measures such as mask wearing, ventilation and distancing, there must be clear and consistent messaging that staff or students who have any Covid-19 symptoms should not attend campus.

Mr Marjoram added that essential to ensuring the safety of all in college communities was the risk assessment of all classrooms, practical rooms, lecture halls and communal areas.

“In this regard, we are seriously concerned by the failure to date of some managements to engage and communicate with employees in a meaningful and timely manner," he said.

Mr Marjoram said where they arose, TUI representatives were addressing “such unacceptable situations locally”, but called on the Department to “do much more to audit and ensure nationwide adherence.”

He said “all mitigation measures must be strictly adhered to – there can be no short cuts taken where health and safety is concerned,” he said.

Mr Marjoram told RTÉ there is widespread confusion, a lack of clarity and a lack of consistency across various institutions and also within institutions.

“There are also clear responsibilities upon management, in this particular return [to college], the advice is that physical distancing within teaching spaces can be relaxed but only in the context of detailed risk assessments which cover all other mitigation measures – most particularly ventilation.

“Our members simply haven’t seen these risk assessments and in some cases, there seems to be some evidence that they’re only being undertaken at the very last minute,” he said.

Mr Marjoram said further concerns exist because his members feel some students do not appreciate the importance of basic mitigation measures such as the need for mask wearing and the use of hand sanitizer.

He said the Higher Education Authority’s decision to allow each college to manage its own mitigation policy has led to vastly different experiences across colleges.

“In one institution some staff were told they had to wear masks while they were lecturing, while other staff were told that they could were visors. That’s a matter that was put to rest more than a year ago in the schools, that visors are essentially useless in this situation.

“I’ve a very detailed document from risk assessments for all rooms in one higher education institute where we operate and in other cases our representatives on the ground have had blank refusals. The risk assessments simply are not being made available to them.

“And I now have members reporting going into classrooms not feeling safe. Not having any clear guidance as to whether the students should have been cleared out of the room 15-minutes before [the next class],” he added.

Mr Marjoram said if TUI members feel they are entering spaces where there is no ventilation, where no risk assessment has been provided or where students refuse to wear masks, then the room is simply unsafe.

“Our clear guidance to members…in that circumstance is that they do not hold the class and they report to management they have had to cancel the class.”

He added that serious concern remains among TUI members despite the high vaccination level among staff and students in third level.

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