Despite some University of Canberra (UC) staff claiming they do not feel safe returning to on-campus teaching and learning on Monday (7 February), the university says it will push ahead with plans to get students and teachers back to campus next week.
National Tertiary Education Union University of Canberra branch president Dr Craig Applegate said the ideal situation now would be to delay the return to campus “pending further consultation”.
Dr Applegate, who is also a lecturer at UC, claimed all plans to return to campus learning and teaching were made last year in November and December – before the Omicron wave hit the ACT.
He said most consultation with staff also occurred in this period.
“Since Christmas, we’ve had this major outbreak, but [it seems] UC hasn’t even thought about the issue,” Dr Applegate noted.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr has also since urged people to continue working from home where possible, which Dr Applegate said is proof staff shouldn’t be ‘forced’ to put themselves in classes where they could likely contract COVID-19.
“Before Christmas, there was only a remote possibility of you [as a teacher] or another student catching COVID-19 in a class. Now it seems much more likely,” Dr Applegate remarked.
It’s particularly worrying, he said, given the prevalence of the virus among the younger demographic that largely forms the university’s student body.
The union wrote to Worksafe ACT on Thursday (3 February) to request its intervention over what it alleges are possible breaches of work health and safety laws if staff is made to return to work when they don’t feel it’s safe to do so.
Not all classes are in-person, however. Lectures are primarily online, but tutorials are mostly scheduled in-person, and for the more practical disciplines, students will be required to attend campus.
Dr Applegate said staff have been offered the option to apply for flexible work arrangements – to a maximum of two days a week at home – but the presumption is this doesn’t apply to people in a teaching role, as it’s expected classes are taught in-person.
“We have some staff who have serious medical conditions or who have vulnerable family members,” Dr Applegate explained.
“There doesn’t seem to be any allowance for them.”
But UC disputes this, saying there is a policy around flexible work which allows staff to work from home when it’s appropriate for them to do so, but on-campus learning will begin next week with safety measures in place, including the use of masks and face shields, social distancing and increased ventilation.
Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, Professor Geoff Crisp said the university will continue to follow the “path” set out, with students expected to return to campus next week.
He noted there would be immense disruptions to student learning if the start of the semester is delayed again given timetables have been in place for many months now.
Professor Crisp said staff who have concerns about returning to campus have been asked to discuss the matter with their manager.
“If they have a particular situation as an individual … or as a carer, they just need to have this conversation, and then we will commit – as we always have – to flexible work,” he explained.
“The university is always happy to work with our union and our staff on any concerns they might have around the safety of their working environment,” Professor Crisp said. He said staff consultation would be ongoing.
If the situation does change, UC will follow ACT Health’s advice.
National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU) ACT Division Secretary Dr Lachlan Clohesy said the union is keeping a “close eye on work health and safety on all university campuses”.
It’s his view, and that of the union, that because Omicron presents a new risk, new assessments should be prepared and another round of consultation should take place.
He agrees that the best solution would be to delay the return to university campuses until “genuine consultation” occurs.
“At the very least, we’d expect to see some concrete arrangements put in place for staff who are not comfortable returning to campus,” he explained.