..and then the proverbial hit the fan!

girl with mask
Photo by Thomas de LUZE on Unsplash

I did think last week that this was just the beginning, when I posted my blog post about the uncertainty that the higher education sector was facing, when I noted a few stories about social distancing and isolation that was being reported in the press. I didn’t think that the story would blow up so soon!

Last week we saw stories emanating from Scotland that students were having positive tests for Covid-19 and hundreds of students were being asked to self-isolate for fourteen days. The impact of coronavirus restrictions on the student experience were starting to surface, from the students breaching social distancing at an open air cinema at Exeter to Abertay in Dundee in Scotland where hundreds of students are being told to isolate.

After Dundee came Glasgow with a major Covid outbreak at Glasgow University seeing 600 students self-isolate. This was then reported in more depth and more widely – ‘We came all this way to start a new life’: the misery of Glasgow’s lockdown freshers.

University of Glasgow
Photo by Michael D Beckwith on Unsplash

I did think that with Scottish universities starting term earlier than their English counterparts that we would start to see similar stories in England within the next two weeks.

I think we will start to see a rise in incidents in England, as Scottish universities start earlier so English universities are a few weeks behind.

Well it happened in the next two days, as well as more stories coming out of Scotland, we started to see similar stories in England, with hundreds of Manchester students locked down after 127 Covid cases and students ‘scared and confused’ as halls lock down.

Up to 1,700 students at Manchester Metropolitan University and hundreds at other institutions, including in Edinburgh and Glasgow, are self-isolating following Covid-19 outbreaks.

It’s being reported by the BBC that forty universities are reporting coronavirus cases.

About 40 universities around the UK have now reported coronavirus cases and thousands of students are self-isolating as the new term begins.

  • The University of Aberystwyth is the latest to suspend face-to-face teaching to reduce the spread of Covid-19.
  • At the University of Essex a cluster of cases has been linked to sports teams.
  • Queen’s University Belfast – some students have been told to self-isolate after a “small number” tested positive.
  • The University of Exeter, which has also reported a “small” number of cases.

In Wales, with much of the population in lockdown, students in many of the Welsh universities were also forced to isolate and stay in their halls. This was proving to be traumatic for many first year students, who are mainly young and for most is their first time away from the family home.

Universities are facing various welfare challenges as you might imagine, but also the challenge that as well as physical face to face delivery, those sessions now also need to be delivered online. This is a different challenge than March where all students were off campus now there is need to deliver multiple versions of the same session. In addition the rise in covid-19 infections is impacting on staff, who may now want to shield, creating additional challenges for delivery across campus and online.

Wonkhe goes into more detail about what is happening at universities right now, and why?

What is going on? If you’ve not been following what has been going over the summer, or you are bewildered as to why we are in this situation, David Kernohan takes you through the basics.

lecture theatre
Image by Michal Jarmoluk from Pixabay

The Guardian was reporting on the pressures being put onto staff: UK universities ‘bullying’ junior staff into face-to-face teaching.

As universities struggle to contain student parties, and with coronavirus outbreaks already confirmed at several campuses, many academics are afraid of face-to-face teaching. But some say managers are bullying them to return and, fearing redundancy, they feel unable to refuse.

It doesn’t help that the press coverage is rather negative and biased against the sector. The universities were told by government that they should reopen their campuses. The Government were clear about what they expect from the sector:

We will introduce new restrictions in England, but not a return to the lockdown in March; we’ll ensure that schools, colleges and universities stay open.

This was reinforced by the Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden who defended students’ university return.

The culture secretary has defended students going back to university in England after a union labelled the situation “shambolic”. Oliver Dowden told the Andrew Marr Show it was important students did not “give up a year of their life” by not going.

Though many (if not all) universities have planned for this, it’s still a difficult situation.

However despite the challenges, it hasn’t stopped stories like this appearing: Police break up parties at Edinburgh student halls. Which places the blame on the students.

This morning we saw pieces on Radio 4’s Today programme and on the television on BBC Breakfast about the crisis, didn’t help that there were a fair few inaccuracies in the reporting.

So the higher education sector is facing real challenges as covid-19 infections result in self-isolation, local lockdowns and the resulting impact on learning and teaching, what they need now is support and help in working through this.

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