Returning to the office?

Back in February/March 2020, when the world was just starting to realise that COVID-19 was going to cause some serious problems, I was already working from home (for what I thought would be a couple of weeks). I drive from my wheelchair in a heavily adapted car and back then it was time for its annual service which meant it needed to go down to Birmingham to the company who did the adaptations. This usually takes a couple of weeks and I’d negotiated with my head of department that I would be allowed to work from home and only come in if 100% necessary. This is because the last time my car was out of action I came in daily using taxi’s and it was the most stressful thing (but that’s for another post). By the time I got my car back we were on the verge of the first national lockdown. From what I’d heard and seen on the TV I was already very concerned about catching the virus – I don’t do well with regular respiratory infections and have a flu jab annually and a pneumonia jab every few years, so I knew that if I caught COVID, things weren’t likely to end well. As the wheels of the pandemic ground on I was eventually confirmed to be ‘clinically extremely vulnerable’ and the government strongly advised me to ‘shield’. This was welcome news mostly as I hadn’t been out since my car had gone for it’s service and at least this label meant that I would have access to some support and an official recognition that I could be severely effected.

As a result of this, I haven’t really been back into work since February 2020. I’ve popped into my office to get books and my laptop. I went in the other week to do a course video, but my line manager and head of department have been brilliant in that they haven’t pushed for my return (even when I’ve felt that students were probably pushing for us all to be back in the classroom), and have let me continue to teach online. They have listened to my concerns and not dismissed them. I can’t stress how much easier this has made things. The stress I have witnessed from friends who are in industries where they can’t work from home, or their boss thinking the whole thing is rubbish is unbelievable. That sense of control and acknowledgment that I know my own risk is invaluable. I’ve written elsewhere about the benefits for me of working from home and I am a strong supporter that Higher Education should be capitalising on what we have learnt from the pandemic in terms of ensuring digital access to students who otherwise struggle to engage (that’s not saying online learning solves all problems as many students don’t have the technology or space to engage properly in this way, although I think Universities could do more to help with this as well), but I also acknowledge that learning in the classroom has it’s own advantages and so I do want to get back to it.

Teaching online has been tricky – initially it was because no-one knew what we were doing, how to do it, how to support students and the stress of the pandemic was making everything just so hard. This academic year, we have the stress of the pandemic which is still raging but being less acknowledged, students in all sorts of terrible situations, but at least we are now more digitally literate. The students seem to want to ‘go back to normal’ and I felt a pressure from them that I shouldn’t be teaching them via zoom anymore, despite me being open with that as to why I was doing it. I did go in for induction week to do a welcome session – they were all really good and most wore masks for me. I wore my mask but I had to repeatedly leave the room as I can’t breathe well in it, never-mind breathe and talk. Thankfully my line manager had agreed to do the sessions with me because I had predicted I’d struggle and she saw how difficult it was for me. This made me realise that there is no way I can come in and teach and wear a mask. Unfortunately I also can’t come in and teach without a mask but ask the students to wear masks as I have students who rely on lip reading (I didn’t know this at induction), and so it would make the class discussions inaccessible to them.

So now we are at the end of another academic year. The UK has ‘reopened’ fully, and less and less people are wearing masks. The narrative being pushed in the media is that COVID is now basically flu and it’s all okay – but the science doesn’t support this and pre-pandemic I did my best to avoid getting flu as well because of how risky it would be for me. People seem to be completely dismissive of the risk of long – covid and the evidence that even ‘mild’ infection is causing heart, lung and brain damage. We have no idea what this virus is going to lead to down the track when people who perhaps don’t have long COVID now, develop ME type conditions 5 or 10 years down the line. On the other hand, I’ve been avoiding busy places for over two years now (which to be fair I’ve enjoyed and I don’t really feel that I’m missing out a lot), my mum (who I live with), is in her late 70’s and although she also needs to be careful due to her age and other impairment, I feel guilty that we aren’t doing more and she’s wasting her golden years. So I started to consider my return to work. Do I push to stay at home for Semester 1 and teach online again? I have a 15 week sabbatical agreed for Semester 2 so this would give me another year to be safe, in which time a new vaccine may have been developed and we may have even more information about what we are actually dealing with. My other option of course is to return to work and teach in person in September, with the hope that I will still be able to attend meetings etc virtually so that I only have to be ‘in’ when I’m teaching. This option means that my students have arguably a better experience, I would get to actually meet my third years who I’ve taught and mentored for the past two years, but never met and I would be making progress to getting back to ‘normal’ – but of course this brings with it risk.

It’s really easy to convince myself in both directions. I went into work yesterday for a team ‘away day’ and on the commute I had convinced myself that it was a really bad idea, and that I was unnecessarily putting myself and mum at risk. Being reminded a few months ago by my respiratory doctor exactly what happens to your lungs if you get pneumonia (which is what most people die of if COVID goes bad) and that I only have a 10% lung capacity so I can’t afford to loose much of it, is quite motivating to avoid even a small risk. On top of that the stuff that the ICU teams have to do to people with severe covid wouldn’t easily be done on me and can cause more damage than good. On the other hand mum and I have started to go back to places like Meadowhall (albeit at quiet times) and I’m planning to go to the cinema (but I can wear my mask) and I’m relatively young and have no reason to believe my immune system isn’t up to scratch, so in theory if I do get COVID it shouldn’t develop into a serious case. I’m also not convinced that the COVID situation in the UK is going to get any better any time soon – the government and most of the public have given up and so it seems like there is no end in sight if I decide to continue to be super cautious, so then the debate is around quality vs quantity of life. I know that if I have a car accident on the motorway it’s going to end badly for me but I still drive on the motorway (and love to do so).

The ‘away day’ went well. It was really lovely to see my colleagues and some new people. I abandoned the mask in the end because we were all eating, drinking and working across two rooms so at some point (if someone in the room did have covid) I would be breathing covid filled air anyway, and at least it meant I could breathe and I was hoping to avoid a headache (didn’t work, got a stress headache instead!). I got a stress headache so I was clearly more worried that I realised but based on how yesterday went, I would like to say I feel confident that I’m okay to teach in September. The thing is, it’s not that simple. A room with 15 colleagues who had been asked to test before coming (I know the people I’m close to had tested but I don’t know about everyone), doing a thing where I could leave at any point if I felt uncomfortable is entirely different to being in front of 30 students who will have been mixing freely and probably aren’t choosing to stay home if they feel a bit sick or to spend money on an LFT just incase. I can’t just up and leave mid seminar because students are coughing and sneezing, and as I said above I can’t mask and I can’t ask them to mask.

I’d love to say I’m totally up for a September return and ask me tomorrow and I might, but then the next day I might have changed my mind again! More thinking to be done, more conversations with my respiratory doctors and mum to see what an acceptable compromise or level of ‘going back to normal’ is right for me.

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