Universities told to continue face-to-face teaching in local lockdown

10 September 2020, 16:34 | Updated: 10 September 2020, 17:06

Universities are reopening over the next few weeks
Universities are reopening over the next few weeks. Picture: PA

By Ewan Somerville

Universities should continue teaching face-to-face and keep students on campus even if the local area enters lockdown, the Government has said. 

Updated guidance released by the Department for Education lays out a four-stage plan for if coronavirus cases rise, as more than one million students head back to campus. 

Institutions must have a plan in place that "assumes there is likely to be an increase in the number of cases, or an outbreak associated with their setting", the advice says. 

But in-person teaching should only be abandoned as a "last resort" - escalating a stand-off with the UK’s largest academics union that has demanded online-only learning until January

It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced the “rule of six”, banning social gatherings of more than six people in England from Monday to tackle rising Covid-19 cases. Health Secretary Matt Hancock pleaded with students to follow the rules

Manchester University said students could be excluded for flouting social distancing
Manchester University said students could be excluded for flouting social distancing. Picture: PA

If local outbreaks occur, campus restrictions will be rolled out in a “phased manner - the key aim being to retain face-to-face provision where it is possible to do so safely,” the guidance says, adding decisions will mostly be taken locally. 

“Unless told otherwise, in the event of additional restrictions being imposed locally during term, students should remain in their current accommodation and not return to the family home, which would increase the risk of transmitting the infection,” the guidance adds. 

In the four-tier plan for local outbreaks: 

1. Universities are expected to provide face-to-face tuition in small groups alongside online lectures as their default position

2. Universities “should prioritise the continuation of face-to-face provision based on their own risk assessment” as their fallback position

3. Institutions should only retain face-to-face provision for priority courses and "in as limited number of situations as possible", such as medicine degrees - and students should remain on campus to avoid spreading the virus to family homes

4. The last resort would be for university buildings to close to everyone except key workers and for the majority of provision to shift online.

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Ahead of Freshers' Week, universities have been told they should not allow students to have "private gatherings" in halls of residence which exceed the limits for gatherings in private households.

In student accommodation, universities are expected to identify "households" to manage routine contact as safely as possible, such as students living in the same flat or on the same floor who share a kitchen or bathroom.

The document, published in the early hours of Thursday, also calls on institutions to "consider students' desire to interact socially and creatively" with peers as part of their experience.

Face coverings should be worn "where social distancing is difficult to maintain outside of teaching situations" - like corridors and communal areas. Staff and students should be aware of local testing centres.

It comes after Government scientific advisers warned that significant outbreaks of coronavirus linked to universities are "highly likely" and they risk amplifying the transmission of the disease across the country.

A paper by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), published on Friday, warned such outbreaks could coincide with Christmas and pose "a significant risk" to extended families.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union (UCU) which has 120,000 members, said: “We are unimpressed with the latest government guidance for English universities which contains confusing, expensive and at time silly suggestions. 

“Moving learning online would remove the need for universities to consider teaching outside or opening doors and windows in the winter months, as the guidance suggests.”
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: "The safety and wellbeing of university staff and students is our priority.

"Universities have been making a mammoth effort to safely open campuses and buildings to students this autumn, and the Government has worked closely with them to ensure they are well prepared for the return of students."