Staff Shortages

After two weeks of festive cooking for myself – something I was quite happy to do- this evening I thought I would mark Twelfth Night by getting a takeaway from my favourite local Thai restaurant. Sadly, however, this turned out to be impossible because they’re closed. The reason? Staff shortages caused by staff having to self-isolate due to Covid-19.

It’s not a big deal to have to make alternative arrangements for dinner, of course, but it got me thinking about all the other areas of life that are currently having the same problems. Many train services in and out of Dublin have been cancelled because of the lack of available train crew, for example. Ireland’s schools are supposed to reopen tomorrow after the Christmas break and it is likely that many teaching staff will be unavailable.

The timing of the academic term for staff Maynooth University is doing us some favours. On Friday 7th we start the examination period. Across the University, 95% of the assessments taking place are online. In my Department that is 100%, so neither students nor staff have to travel onto campus. Teaching does not start again until 31st January so we have over three weeks to see how the situation develops. Some other third-level institutions in Ireland had exams before Christmas so go straight back to teaching right now and I wonder how staff in those feelings are feeling about the prospect.

My biggest source of stress as Head of the Department of Theoretical Physics this academic year has been the fact that we have been short-staffed since the start of the year, half our teaching staff being temporary lecturers, and student numbers are well up on last year. If just one member of teaching staff were to become ill we would have serious difficulty covering the shortfall. Asymptomatic staff just having to self-isolate could teach online, of course, but someone who is ill can’t be expected to do that.

A specific worry I have for next Semester is the Computational Physics module I will be teaching. Last year we did this entirely online, which went satisfactorily; the subject lends itself fairly well to online teaching. This year however we are expected to be back in the lab. We have more than twice as many students in that class than we had last year so we’ll have to work out how to fit them safely into the relatively small teaching space we have available. We’ll certainly have to do two sessions per week but I may offer students the option of following along at home via Teams if they wish. I’ll decide that after the exams are over.

It is of course possible that the situation deteriorates very badly and we have to go fully online again. Possible, that is, but I think not likely. The Government seems determined not to countenance a return to remote working and probably won’t unless things get very much worse. As things stand, the omicron variant is running through the population like wildfire in terms of infections, but this has not led to ICU admissions or deaths on the same scale as last year.

All these issues are as nothing compared to the stress that must be felt right now by workers in the Health Services. After two years of exhausting work many health care workers are having to cover for staff absences in addition to dealing with an average of 20,000 new Covid-19 cases per day.

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