University staff voice concerns at being asked to test students for Covid

University staff have voiced concern after their employers asked them to join a hastily assembled army of workers who will carry out mass Covid-19 testing of students before the pre-Christmas exodus home.

a tall building in a city: Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

© Provided by The Guardian
Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

They include staff at the University of Sussex, whose vice-chancellor sent out an email saying it was only with their help that a mass testing programme – which could be rolled out in just under two weeks – would succeed. More than 100 members of staff there are understood to have volunteered already.

“The mass testing programme will entail very significant challenges in an extremely short time period, and we are planning the logistics now so that we are as prepared as possible,” Adam Tickell, the university’s vice-chancellor, told staff in an email on Wednesday.

He said about 100 members of staff would be required each day to work on campus, from Monday 30 November to Friday 11 December.

Warwick and Sheffield Hallam are among other universities that have reportedly asked staff to help with the roll out of testing.

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“It speaks to the holes in the planning around student return that we have been warning about,” said Vicky Blake, president of the University and College Union (UCU). “We asked who will be doing the testing, and I have to say it is both shocking but not a surprise that it looks like they want staff to do it.”

a tall building: Sheffield Hallam University is one of the institutions that has reportedly asked staff to help with the roll out of testing.

© Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer
Sheffield Hallam University is one of the institutions that has reportedly asked staff to help with the roll out of testing.

She said concerns among staff ranged from what PPE would be available to who would be responsible if false negatives resulted in infections being carried home. Junior and newer staff felt pressured to take part, particularly at a time when job cuts loomed over many campuses, she said.

A University of Sussex spokesperson said it had asked staff to consider whether they would be able to volunteer at its testing centre, and that those roles would be “instead of, not on top of, their usual duties”. All volunteers will continue to receive their normal pay.

Roles will include coordinating queueing, registering students, advising on how to take the test, processing tests and recording results. Full training and PPE would be provided, the university said.

The government announced this month that students in England would be given a six-day window in December in which to travel home before Christmas, with mass testing carried out on campuses before they are allowed to leave.

A mass exodus will take place on staggered departure dates set by universities from 3 December to 9 December, after England’s four-week lockdown is due to end, under plans announced by the Department for Education (DfE). Students testing positive would need to remain in self-isolation for 10 days.

Similar plans are being rolled out in Northern Ireland,

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Big Ten mayors ‘humbly’ voice Covid concerns as conference college football kicks off this weekend

The Big Ten says it’s ready to play some football this weekend, but the mayors of the college towns where these teams are based have “humbly” asked the conference to address their Covid-19 concerns before kickoff.

“We know the history of football games within our cities,” the mayors wrote in an open letter this week to the Big Ten Conference, which actually has 14 universities and includes storied college football programs like Ohio State, Michigan, Penn State and Wisconsin. “They generate a lot of activity, social gatherings and consumption of alcohol. These activities within our communities have also been associated with an increased spread of Covid-19.”

So even though all Big Ten games will be played this season without fans in the stands, the mayors wrote, “we humbly request a few practical measures that the Big Ten Conference can take to ensure we have the tools we need to combat the spread of Covid-19.”

“While we all appreciate our college and university sports programs and the economic and community benefits that they provide, the COVID-19 crisis is far from over and we are expecting some potential new obstacles as a result of the upcoming football season,” Mayor Aaron Stephens of East Lansing, Michigan, the home of Michigan State University, added in a separate statement.

NBC News has reached out to the Big Ten for a response to the mayors. Their letter was delivered more than a month after the league, which had shelved the season because of concerns about the pandemic, suddenly reversed course and announced it would play after all.

President Donald Trump, who had been pressuring the Big Ten to get back out on the gridiron, claimed victory. But the league leadership said the development of rapid Covid-19 testing technology — not the president’s pressure tactics — was behind their decision.

“President Trump had nothing to do with our decision and did not impact the deliberations,” the president of a Big Ten university who asked not to be identified said. “In fact, when his name came up, it was a negative, because no one wanted this to be political.”

In other coronavirus news:

  • Less that two weeks before a presidential election that is shaping up as a referendum on Trump’s much-criticized handling of the pandemic, the U.S. was leading the world with 8.4 million confirmed Covid-19 cases and 223,544 deaths, according to the latest tally compiled by NBC News.
  • Ahead of Trump facing off against Democratic challenger Joe Biden in their final debate Thursday, Frank Fahrenkopf, co-chairman of the Commission on Presidential Debates, said they took a number of measures to keep the candidates safe, including installing Plexiglass between the podiums. “I’m not sure that the Trump campaign wanted it,” he told MSNBC. It was removed after Trump and Biden tested negative.
  • Some 787,000 people filed for first-time unemployment benefits last week, the lowest weekly count since March. But weekly claims have remained stubbornly high since the start of the pandemic and have far surpassed the previous record
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