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In-person teaching to stay despite Covid-19 outbreaks

Image: Chris McAndrew [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Face-to-face learning will continue but could end early to get students home for Christmas

Students should still be offered face-to-face teaching despite a growing number of Covid-19 outbreaks on university campuses, education secretary Gavin Williamson has said.

Williamson told the House of Commons on 29 September that it was “essential that we allow our students to have face-to-face teaching wherever possible as part of a blended learning approach”.

The Labour Party and the University and College Union are among those calling for teaching to move online, with around 40 universities so far confirming Covid-19 cases among students. 

Although the education secretary said that face-to-face teaching should continue, he also suggested that it could end early this term to allow students to isolate before going home for Christmas.

There has been confusion in the past few days over whether students will be allowed to return home for the holidays, and the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies warned earlier this month that the end of term could see a spike in Covid-19 cases as students travel across the country.

“We are going to work with universities to make sure that all students are supported to return home safely and spend Christmas with their loved ones if they choose to do so,” Williamson said. “Where there are specific circumstances that warrant it, there may be a requirement for some students to self-isolate at the end of term, and we will be working with the sector to ensure this will be possible—including ending in-person learning early if that is deemed to be necessary.”

He added that it was “inevitable” that universities would experience outbreaks of the virus but institutions were “very well prepared”, although he stressed that students should not face stricter measures than other groups and said there should be “parity” on Covid-19 restrictions. He also urged students and staff to avoid getting a Covid-19 test if they did not have symptoms, to ease the “significant demand” for tests.

In response, shadow education secretary Kate Green said the return to university had proved to be a “desperately worrying time” for students who were “isolated in cramped accommodation”.

“If he doesn’t get a grip, the situation we have seen in recent days could repeat itself across the country,” she said, adding that the situation “was predictable and it was predicted”.

Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the idea that universities were well prepared to deal with Covid-19 outbreaks was “clearly wrong”.

“The education secretary needs to tell universities to halt in-person teaching, stop more students moving onto campus and issue clear guidance to move as much work as possible online, in line with other workplaces,” she added.