Specialised teaching spaces, such as laboratories, have been reconfigured to provide more physical distancing. Here’s how to approach face-to-face teaching in these spaces in S2.

As we return to face-to-face teaching next week, it is helpful to go through a short checklist of how to create a safe work environment for staff and students. I have enjoyed teaching all levels of Biology in the Faculty of Science and Engineering teaching laboratories in E8A and E8C for many years, and I am also part of the Department’s tutor induction training.

In comparison to ‘general teaching spaces’ (see Sean Brawley’s recent TECHE blog post), ‘specialist teaching spaces’ like labs may not be able to sustain physical distancing due to the fixed configuration of the space or the nature of the learning activity. However, if physical distancing control measures cannot be implemented, others should be introduced, such as masks.  Each faculty has been advised to conduct a risk assessment of ‘specialist teaching spaces’ to identify where additional control measures are required to reduce the risk as low as reasonably practicable to ensure the health and safety of staff and students. If you are unsure if this has been completed in your faculty, please contact your Associate Dean (L&T or equivalent). 

Many of my checklist items are generic to health and safety in a teaching laboratory and a few are specific to the situation presented by COVID-19. The MQ COVIDSafe Plan and associated FAQs can also assist with semester 2 preparations.  

There are seven tips which should help teaching staff make the necessary decisions to prepare classes for learning in a safe environment:

1. Have discussions with tutors and technical staff
Prior to starting practicals, I always meet with my team of tutors and technical staff to discuss health and safety during the class and how we can create a safe and enjoyable teaching environment. This discussion includes protocols, processes, and expected conduct of behaviour. I spend quite some time discussing that it is crucial that as teaching staff we uphold all safety requirements with zero tolerance. 

2. Start with a health and safety induction for students
This is always the first discussion we lead with students – what are the safety requirements for working in the laboratory? We explain in great detail that for ensuring safety, we cannot tolerate non-compliance. I have sent many students away from prac-classes who were not wearing the correct enclosed footwear, or who were eating or drinking in the laboratory. This is no different in the current COVID-19 environment. If students are unwell and showing COVID-19 symptoms, they must not attend the prac. 

3. Keep vigilant throughout the teaching session
Observing students and providing feedback during the practical lesson is critical, many are starting to learn how to work in a laboratory setting.

4. What to do if the safety of students is compromised?
I have never hesitated to take swift action when the safety of staff and students is under threat – whether that is due to a chemical spill, an evacuation alert or a student falling suddenly unwell.

I clearly remember when I was once teaching Animal Structure and Function, a student alerted me that they were feeling very unwell in need of fresh air. I assessed that they were about to faint, quickly helped them to lie on the floor and evacuated the class so that I could attend to the student in need, and contact security. While it was a stressful situation, it was not difficult to make those decisions. 

5. Run a COVIDSafe practical class 
During covid-19, the additional safe working protocols and processes include:

  • no staff or students who are unwell or showing symptoms (even the slightest) can attend the class 
  • physical distancing should be maintained while entering and exiting the lab, as well as during the practical
  • washing hands before and after (and sometimes during) the practical
  • wiping down desks and equipment before and after use
  • providing masks for staff and students in specialist teaching spaces where physical distancing cannot be maintained 

6. What to do if someone is feeling sick or is showing signs of being sick?
It is entirely clear to me that I will ask anyone feeling sick or showing symptoms of a cold in a practical class to leave the class immediately. The risk to safety is just too great in normal circumstances, let alone during COVID-19.

If they can’t or will not leave the laboratory, it is also very clear to me that I will immediately evacuate the lab and call security to provide assistance to the student – safety always comes first.

7. Masks or no masks?
Any staff or students wanting to wear masks, should, but currently they are not specifically required to on campus – this could of course change in future. However, where physical distancing cannot be maintained, additional control measures, such as masks, should be considered as part of the risk assessment process. 

Posted by Marie Herberstein

I am a biologist and work on the behaviour of spiders and insects here at Macquarie University. I am currently the interim Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic).

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