After 18 months, Irish universities are preparing for a return to campus for both students and staff. Many IFUT members remained in their places of work throughout the pandemic but many more were compelled to adapt to remote working for their safety and the safety of their students. Nobody, not least ourselves, was aware that we had the ability to pivot lectures and tutorials from ‘face to face’ to ‘remote’ almost overnight. That is not to say that this was without challenge, there have been many and some remain.
As we focus now on ensuring that the return to on-campus working is as safe and as smooth as it can be the Federation has demonstrated how our structures work best. Our local committees have been engaging directly with the management teams across the universities with support from Head Office while Head Office has been actively engaging on a sectoral and national level in our efforts to ensure the best and safest return for all that we represent and all whom we interact with. IFUT have been pushing hard at a national level for any plans or guidance emerging from the D/FHERIS to be ‘safety proofed’ by the Chief Medical Officer or a member of the Public Health team. We took this position, with our ICTU colleagues, to ensure that the return to campus was considered not just with the student experience in mind but also the health and wellbeing of the campus community, including the safety of our members, at the centre of all preparations. Your Union played a vital role in ensuring the voice and concerns of workers were heard. Indeed we needed to demand a seat on the sectoral Covid Steering Group when the original plan was for said discussions to take place without the workers affected being represented. The prospect of a return to campus sectoral dialogue taking place without the input of your Union and other Unions in the sector shows the importance of an active, strong and organised Union to resist efforts to side-line the staff of universities from decisions which affect them.
Social Distancing and Safety Measures
As the preparations for a return to campus were shared with staff and students we saw that many universities were taking a view on social distancing in particular which was not in line with public health advice, namely that social distancing was a legacy issue which was no longer needed in lecture halls. IFUT applied pressure through our ICTU delegation to the Covid Tertiary Education Steering Group and through a sustained media campaign to challenge the emerging view across the sector on social distancing.
Arising from that campaign, public health advice regarding social distancing emerged last week. The wearing of masks indoors and the need to keep a distance from each other remain key matters for consideration in the forming of any return to campus planning by the management teams. In cases where adequate social distancing is deemed not feasible then risk assessments are required to ensure that the other mitigating measures being called upon are satisfactory.
The advice of Dr John Cuddihy, Director of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre and currently acting National Clinical Director of Health Protection to the Steering group is:
“Further and higher education and research is essential on-site and, as such, there will be instances and contexts where adherence to the recommended physical distancing is not feasible. Current general public health advice contains a package of precautionary measures and physical distancing is one of these measures. There is no strict baseline with regard to physical distancing and the package of measures to be implemented is dependent on risk assessment informed by local engagement. It is key that where physical distancing is not feasible that there are appropriate precautionary measures in place, particularly as they relate to ventilation, entry and egress to minimise congregation, hand sanitising and the wearing of face coverings and that institutions have the autonomy and flexibility to risk assess and adapt these in respect of their specific settings.”
Role of the Union Activist
We, in Head Office, sincerely appreciate the considerable work that each of our Committees, Representatives and Activists have done on behalf of our members to ensure that every concern that could be raised and addressed has been brought to the attention of the management teams devising the return to campus plans. In particular we thank those members who volunteered to become Lead Worker Representatives, a new type of representative specifically designed for addressing Covid related workplace issues. Indeed every single member has lessened the impact of this crisis for those that we engage with though your actions and for that we thank you. Please keep in contact with your local branches as you safely return to campus over the coming weeks and months. We are stronger and safer together.