On 18 January over 100 library staff at University of Leeds wrote to the vice chancellor about the decision to keep library study spaces open when the risk from covid-19 is so high. Following a weekend which has seen thousands more students return to Leeds, they have still not had a reply, other than: “Thank you for your email.”
Email to the vice chancellor
Subject: Concerns about keeping study space open in the Libraries
Dear Professor Buitendijk,
The two unions representing Library staff, UCU and Unison, have jointly written a letter to you setting out our concerns about the use of the Libraries as study space during this national lockdown. We believe Library staff are being put at risk by the decision to keep study spaces in the Libraries open, when there are opportunities to provide safer un-staffed study spaces elsewhere on campus or in halls of residence. The decision to keep the Library study spaces open is putting enormous pressure on Library staff and is taking its toll on staff mental health and wellbeing, due to the stress and worry about being infected with the virus while at work.
Over 110 Library staff members have signed this letter, plus 50 other former Library staff and our colleagues from other services and departments.
We ask you to acknowledge our concerns, and to take action to reduce the risk by closing the study spaces in the Library immediately and providing safer spaces elsewhere for students.
You can read the letter at this link: https://docs.google.com/document/d/1k5mg5Z1JI2HrF9JuVJQQU6ra-j1-ViUiGEVQ4zQZf74/edit?usp=sharing
UCU Library Rep
Dear Professor Buitendijk
We are writing to ask you to seriously reconsider keeping the Libraries open for study space during this national lockdown.
We know that this is the most dangerous point of the entire pandemic; we know as well that the new variant of the virus spreads more easily between people; and we know that spending prolonged amounts of time indoors with large numbers of people increases your likelihood of infection. Therefore, spending a full morning, afternoon or even a full day inside a library, in a shared space with potentially hundreds of other people, is a risky activity and should be avoided as much as possible. Library staff are being asked to work in these spaces and interact with students on a regular basis, which puts everyone at risk. They aren’t allowed to ask for evidence that a library user has had a recent negative test and they don’t have the power to ask someone to leave the library if they’re not complying with the rules around mask-wearing or distancing. These issues undermine the idea that the library is a “Covid-secure” environment.
The situation as it stands is extremely stressful and upsetting for many members of Library staff. Library staff are being asked to go into a risky situation and put their own health and that of their families and household members at risk. It must be remembered that staff who go to work on campus have to travel there and back, and while some will be able to make use of transport modes such as a car, a bike or walking, some are simply unable to do this and need to travel using trains and/or buses, putting themselves at further risk of exposure. Many of these staff, or their household members, also have personal characteristics that mean they are more at risk of serious illness if they were to be infected.
Although we have raised these concerns several times, the University has not listened or acted. Library front-line workers feel abandoned and dismissed, at a time when support and compassion are so important. There is real concern that by keeping study spaces open, the University is tacitly encouraging some students to leave their homes for non-essential reasons, to mix in shared spaces in great numbers, and to potentially spread the virus to others. We are all worried about the consequences of taking too many risks in this situation – there’s a very real chance that staff, or their household members, could become seriously ill or worse.
To put it plainly, we are concerned that the University is prioritising student access to study space over staff health and welfare. While we acknowledge that not all students will be able to study at home, we believe it should be possible to provide unstaffed study space on campus, which does not require staff to interact with students or to spend prolonged amounts of time in the same space as them, for example in Parkinson Court or in IT clusters.
We acknowledge that Government guidance says that HE institutions should consider keeping study spaces open but we urge the University to take into account the facts: the risk to everyone’s health and safety has never been higher. We ask you to go further than the Government’s advice, and to close the Library study spaces to keep staff safe. Doing so would demonstrate the University’s care and support for the mental and physical health of the people who are at most risk of exposure to the virus.
With sincere best wishes,
Signatures from Library staff