English universities face tiered restrictions in Covid lockdowns

Union says some aspects of new advice are ‘confusing, expensive and at times silly’

September 10, 2020
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Universities in areas of England that are subject to local Covid-19 lockdowns will face four “tiers of restrictions” on face-to-face teaching, according to updated government guidance.

The tiers range from a Tier 1 “default position” – where teaching will involve a blend of in-person and online – to a Tier 4 “last resort” – where almost all classes will be digital.

Students may also be told to avoid travel, including back to their family home, a measure unveiled by the prime minister, Boris Johnson, in a speech on new general coronavirus restrictions yesterday.

According to the guidance, if there is a local outbreak, “restrictions will be implemented in a phased manner – the key aim being to retain face-to-face provision where it is possible to do so safely”.

Tier 2 would require institutions to “move to an increased level of online learning where possible” but with continued face-to-face teaching on courses where it is most beneficial, such as lab-based subjects.

It says the next level, Tier 3, would see increased online teaching apart from the highest priority subjects, with students also asked to follow wider government guidance on local restrictions, “including where this says that students should remain in their current accommodation and not return to their family home or other residential accommodation to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus through travel”.

Meanwhile, the guidance also says face coverings “should be worn as an additional risk mitigation measure by students, staff and visitors, where social distancing is difficult to maintain outside of teaching situations, such as in corridors and communal areas”.

And it also goes into detail about how different groups of students should be treated as a “household”, including in halls of residence where, it says, those on the same floor and sharing facilities would be treated as one household “rather than an entire block”.

Such detail on student accommodation is potentially hugely significant as the guidance reiterates that if “a resident has coronavirus symptoms, all residents in that household must isolate for 14 days”.

The new guidance follows a paper from the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) that warned of a “significant risk” for the spread of coronavirus from the reopening of campuses.

It has led to a growing row in recent days, with Labour writing to the government calling for better access to testing for students and the University and College Union repeating calls for teaching to stay online until Christmas.

The UCU said shifting most learning online would avoid universities having to try to follow what it called “confusing, expensive and at times silly suggestions” in the guidance.

It drew particular attention to guidance on ventilation in buildings, which suggests opening doors and windows or even teaching outside, something the UCU said “was not a practical suggestion for England during the winter months”.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said the updated guidance took the recent Sage advice into account and would “help university leaders access the information they need, and assist their existing plans to keep students and staff as safe as possible”.

However, she also urged students – who will also face major restrictions on their ability to socialise under new general coronavirus rules being introduced in England next week that will prevent groups of more than six people from meeting – to “do their bit”.

“Health advice only works if we all follow it. I urge students, just like the wider public, to do their bit and act responsibly to ensure campuses can remain open for them to use and enjoy,” she said.

simon.baker@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

new
We are told to provide some online teaching, but a minimum of face-to-face teaching too. Lots of staff are trying their best to find suitable teaching spaces for all students and timetable shifts because classes will have to be split to redude student numbers in the teaching rooms. In my university town in England this week we are seeing a rise in numbers of students moving in and meeting in large groups (more than 6 people), picnicking around the town, going out and about... No masks, no safe distancing. I wonder how the rules and guidelines outlined above can be enforced. Who is going to patrol the dorms and student lettings to check they don't meet in large numbers? Or check that they isolate if their housemate has symptoms? Good luck to us all.

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