Melbourne Uni in mask push, La Trobe extends vax rule as students return

Melbourne University has directed students to wear face masks inside classrooms and La Trobe has extended its on-campus vaccine mandate until October, as universities seek to prevent campuses from being swamped by the latest wave of COVID-19 infections.

Victoria’s acting chief health officer urged higher education providers last week to return to remote learning and working “at this time of heightened transmission and risk”.

Speech pathology students Charlotte Scaunich, Henry Choi, Katie Nipper and Adele Stewart said the “expectation” to wear masks was impractical in their classes.Credit:Justin McManus

However, as thousands of students returned to campus on Monday – the first day of second semester – none of Victoria’s eight public universities indicated they would follow Professor Ben Cowie’s recommendation to “use their discretion to facilitate working and studying from home if practicable” this winter.

Melbourne University provost Professor Nicola Phillips “strongly encouraged” students in May to come to campus for their studies during second semester “to enjoy the rich atmosphere of university life”.

On Monday, a university spokesperson said Melbourne was advising mask wearing in classrooms because it wanted to remain open and active this semester.

Returning students have been told by email that, “through to the end of winter, students and staff are expected to wear masks when in classroom settings, except where removing a mask is necessary for clear communication or when a particular activity requires the removal of a mask”.

The directive is stronger than inside Victorian schools, where masks are “strongly recommended” for students aged eight and above.

Melbourne’s mask stance is not shared by other universities, though its drive to fill its lecture halls and tutorial rooms while COVID-19 cases are high was criticised by the higher education union.

David Gonzalez, the National Tertiary Education Union’s Melbourne branch president, said many university staff were nervous about being in confined workspaces, including classrooms, and would prefer to teach remotely.

“The vice-chancellor and the provost are hellbent on returning everyone to campus and don’t want to hear anything other than the implementation of their fantasy land of a return to campus,” he said.

First-year arts student Georgia Gillies supports Melbourne University’s expectation of staff and students to mask up in classrooms, but questions why it has dropped its vaccination mandate.Credit:Justin McManus

Georgia Gillies, a first-year arts student, backed the push if it would support a full on-campus experience, saying she enjoyed her classes much more in person than online.

“It’s good that they are doing something like that right now [expecting staff and students to wear masks], because I think there is going to be a spike in cases again,” she said.

However, she questioned why the university had dropped its vaccination mandate earlier this month if it was committed to reducing the spread of illnesses.

“I’m lucky because I’m triple vaccinated and I feel confident about being able to survive [COVID], but I don’t think it’s going to make people who are disabled or chronically ill feel safe.”

The university’s chief operating officer, Allan Tait, said ending the vaccine mandate was “consistent with recent changes to Victorian pandemic orders”.

Melbourne University speech pathology students Adele Stewart and Charlotte Scaunich said the expectation to wear masks was unworkable in their classes, with its emphasis on sounds and mouth movements.

“The teacher was trying to show us different sounds and how to make them with your mouth and he’s got to pull his mask down every five seconds,” Scaunich said.

La Trobe University, meanwhile, has backed its own experts’ advice on vaccinations ahead of the pandemic orders, and will extend its vaccine mandate for students and staff on campus beyond winter to the end of second semester in October.

It is the only Victorian university to have maintained a mandate on vaccinations this semester.

“With vaccination requirements now the responsibility of individual employers, the university has a duty under the Work Health and Safety laws to minimise the risk of COVID-19 exposure in the workplace,” La Trobe said.

“Our public health experts have emphasised that COVID-19 vaccinations remain an important way to protect us from severe illness, hospitalisation and death.”

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