This post, written by a concerned branch member, was scheduled for publication today before the government’s announcement of a second lockdown in England at the weekend. We have decided to publish it in its original form. – Comms
Given what has happened over the last few months, we always knew that this term was going to be especially challenging. This week, on only the second day of the teaching term, my students were buzzing with rumours about the virus: who had it, who was isolating, and where on campus they needed to avoid.
Much of this I had not been told through official channels, and so I took the rumours as exactly that. Surely, I thought, surely academic and professional services staff would be kept up to date if students were being asked by the college to isolate with suspected symptoms, or – more crucially – if students tested positive for the virus.
While many members of academic staff who are vulnerable to the virus have secured arrangements to only teach online this term, there are plenty of others for whom avoiding infection is crucial: those with more mild but still significant pre-existing conditions, for example, or those who need to continue interacting with dependents or non-household family members. Professional services staff have been working on campus throughout the summer, and continue to offer in-person support to the College community. Given we still know so little about the virus and its long-term impact – even on those who are supposedly fit and healthy – I am sure there are very few members of staff who want to risk catching it. Students and staff need to be kept informed about the situation on campus in order to manage their risk, and the College should be as responsible as possible.
Unfortunately, as the week went on, it became clear that there was a significant discrepancy between the official line and what students and colleagues were saying on campus – a discrepancy sizeable enough to suggest that not every report could be dismissed as rumour.
As of the afternoon of Sunday 4 October, as I write this post, I have received official confirmation – from either my department or the college – of only one confirmed case of the virus in our community, and that there are students being asked to isolate in undisclosed locations. Unofficially, people talk of others. Rumours take hold because of the gap in communication; students and staff do not believe they are being fully informed by their College and their employer. I have not been told which parts of campus are affected, despite the fact that I have to teach and work in several spaces that adjoin halls of residence.
I have worn a mask, used my own hand sanitiser, and I have made use of the sanitiser dispensers that have been installed by college, but of course I cannot say the same for everyone.
Founder’s is a major location on campus and, as a colleague who works there pointed out to me in a very concerned email, they witnessed both students and staff walking around without masks or in close proximity to one another. We have at least one case on campus, and increasing numbers of students are reporting to me that they are self-isolating; we need to be more careful.
If it weren’t for the thoughtfulness of the students and staff getting in touch with me, I would have no clue that people I regularly come into contact with are self-isolating. No one has emailed me, or any of my colleagues, as far as I know, to warn us to be extra cautious because there are potential cases in the buildings in which we work. No one from the College has told me I have students in my classes who are self-isolating.
If staff aren’t kept in the loop about the situation on campus, this could prove disastrous for both individuals and for the college community.
Perhaps the college is aiming for a policy of ‘ignorance is bliss’ – but this needs to change. Everyone at Royal Holloway has a right to make informed choices about their risk management. I very much hope that colleagues in other departments have had a better experience of the first week of teaching. I hope that my concerns are premature, and that college will announce a more open policy of communication in the next few days. But I fear not.
There is a rumour mill on campus, which is causing anxiety and fear. The best way to stop these rumours is by communicating more clearly. If the college is going to empower us all to discern fact from fake news, they need to drastically and immediately improve the frankness of their communication.
Our member makes the following suggestions:
* The college should make public a full list of locations on campus in which there are students they have asked to self-isolate. This could be done sensitively – ‘three corridors in Founders are being asked to self-isolate’; ‘one block of Wedderburn is being asked to self-isolate’ – to maintain a balance between privacy and clear communication.
* The list should be circulated daily to at least all staff, along with any other important virus-related updates.
* Anyone who teaches or has an office in a building that also contains self-isolating students should be informed directly by email.
* Crucially, staff should be contacted directly if a student in their class has been told to self-isolate – the burden should not be on students to do this themselves.
The Branch would be very interested in hearing your thoughts on these issues, particularly in light of the approach of a second lockdown; please e-mail as rhulucu2018 at gmail.com