Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Those in England that were hoping to find some helpful guidance under the tree from DfE on how to operate higher education this coming term were doubtless disappointed.

There hasn’t even been anything in the sales.

Last year we got that “staggering” advice in early December which was then revised in the gap between Christmas and New Year. This year all we’ve had is a little amendment on masks in teaching spaces to reflect the news for schools:

As a quick reminder, the September iteration stressed masks in communal areas rather than teaching spaces on this utterly baffling “universities are big schools” basis:

That then morphed into “may want to consider” in December:

And now we’re back to “recommend”.

More generally, the emergence of Omicron (timed exquisitely to really kick off during the break) poses quite the puzzle – although we probably ought to be pleased that it’s one that universities will be able to resolve all on their own without meddling auntie Michelle, uncle Alex or great uncle Nadhim getting in the way.

Clearly, how universities do that depends on their January. I say that because in any given week during the academic year, different universities can be engaged in very different things, especially just before and after the big breaks.

Some in the sector have terms that kick off on Tuesday 4th, others have a few weeks now before campuses fill back up. Some have a January filled with assessment, others are back into teaching pretty sharpish. Some have substantial January intakes to enrol, induct and welcome students – others not so much.

So notwithstanding that diversity, let’s think through the implications of Omicron shall we?

Sick and tired you’ve been hanging on me

As noted above, we’re now mandating masks (probably, although the question of enforcement remains in the air). But the sort of mask really matters too. It really ought to go without saying that that attractive floral cloth thing you got in 2020 that you keep forgetting to put in the wash really is a waste of time.

With a variant this transmissible universities would be doing everyone a service if they also led the way on promoting (and if possible supplying) masks with the FFP2 (EU), N95 (USA) or KF94 (Korea) specification.

There’s lots of articles on why better masks are important online – for example this on CNN, this in Saturday’s Guardian or this from earlier in the week.

I’m taking it as read that January assessment that can be online has already moved online, and that enrolment and induction tasks are also as online as they can be. For me that’s more about the practicalities of international students and cancelled flights than it is the actual physical risks of Covid.

I’m also assuming that that “work from home if you can” thing has settled appropriately, that everyone is about to welcome the local booster bus onto campus, and that folks are easing off on the hygiene theatre of wiping everything all the time to combat an airborne virus.

You’re telling me lies

That all largely leaves us with the nature and volume of mixing in on-campus teaching and facilities that should apply during the current wave.

It is now pretty much impossible to say anything on how much activity should be mandated or allowed in-person on campus without being denounced by both sides of the Covid culture war – so I should declare that I have gorged on hopium all Christmas and I’m firmly in the “not much to worry about on balance” camp, although I respect (most of) those who disagree for (mostly) good reasons and I can see why caution makes sense while the wave passes. So I’ll try to keep this practical.

The thing about Omicron for me is that for the next couple of weeks at least, it sort of takes us back to October 2020.

What I mean by that is that despite the best laid plans that were generated from space allocation models and those bloody one way systems, things in the first half of that autumn term fell apart quickly when people in a household had to self-isolate.

We were largely relieved from reflecting on it all first by lockdown activity in the back half of that term and first half of the next, and then by a focus on “freedom” which eventually exempted the double vaxxed from isolating if they were a close (household) contact. But Omicron is a spanner in the works that transports us back to Autumn 2020.

I don’t mean that everyone in a house (ie close contacts) still has to self-isolate – although they of course do if for whatever reason they’re (still) not double vaxxed. I mean that in many ways (not necessarily numerically but at least conceptually and practically) the sheer transmissibility of Omicron has now replaced that self-isolation stuff as a thing that can take out households and thus large numbers of staff and students on any given day.

On the basis that there’s not much staff or students can do to stop getting Omicron, and on the basis that (some) students live packed in with others and some live with families whose kids are about to return to school, depending on where you are in the country and how soon in-person activity resumes, we’re about to see the “NHS staffing problem” only on campuses for a couple of weeks. Like we did in the week before Christmas.

For me that means a few things.

Don’t be angry to me. You make me sad

First, I’m not someone suggesting that events, sports facilities, students’ union buildings, libraries, cafes or social learning spaces should be locked down. If there are staff around to operate them and students that need (or even want) to use them while masked up and following the national rules that apply, then fair enough.

January and February are miserable mental health months as it is, and I can’t see that any of the nations’ national rules/guidance or the actual health risks warrant that draconian an approach – especially if the shortage on lateral flow tests eases up and people are sensible. These are, after all, largely optional activities.

That said, it goes without saying that our staffing and academic attendance practises (including those of our contractors) ought to amply support those with Covid actually staying off work, and those that consider their own catching of Omicron to be especially risky should be facilitated to avoid lots of mixing.

It’s compulsory activity – I’m really talking mainly teaching – in January that is another thing altogether. For me it’s not so much that it in and of itself represents a particular transmission risk – although what students do before and after teaching surely does, and those room layouts probably have to change once Omicron is factored in.

It’s that for the next couple of weeks while the wave passes, especially if you’re not in London (if you believe as I do that London has largely peaked at this point), at any given point there’s likely to be large numbers of staff and students that can’t come in.

Little world gotta know you

The biggest enemy to learning is disruption – and for many Covid has served up constant, grinding, exhausting bowl-fulls of it, with students now exhibiting debilitating levels of anxiety to match. The question therefore, especially for leaders, should surely be identifying ways of minimising it in January.

Depending on your usual calendar, who you are and what your role is in higher education, that probably means empowering as many people as possible to do what they think best with a central goal in mind – what is the least disruptive way of doing this? For teaching, if that room is full of equipment that facilitates it, maybe it’s fine to operate in-person on the basis that the staff or students could be remote if needs be – or maybe it would just be less disruptive to move to Zoom for January.

For practical and lab work, maybe a(nother) move around of the curriculum is in order so that absences in January aren’t a major headache. Work-based learning, placements and trips should all be considered on this basis. And even if we’re confident that academic policies on stuff like mitigating circumstances are the right ones for the crisis, we should send appropriate signals about Omicron and its impacts counting as something nobody was able to anticipate or predict earlier in the year.

Crucially – a message that says “we’re running January as we intended, but be prepared for crushing levels of last-minute disruption” feels like the wrong way to do it all. “Here’s how January will run assuming that Omicron will be with us for a few more weeks” surely makes much more sense.

So as I say, it can’t be done well as hyflex, and if it can move online, the case for moving January teaching online for me is now compelling. We all have enough hassle on in the rest of our lives thanks to Omicron without coping with last minute swathes of teaching staff and students having to isolate.

Bring me out of my home

All being well – and I’m impossibly optimistic about this – February will be much more straightforward and there will still be plenty of weeks left in the academic year to put things right that went wrong in January. But one other note of caution.

The disruption that Omicron has caused might well have so far largely missed university campuses, but it has still hit thousands of students hard. I’m talking about those that needed to work over this break, but who ended up self-isolating instead. In England there’s been no extra money from DfE into university hardship funds, and local authorities are still denying students access to the discretionary component of the Test and Trace Support Payment scheme.

With bills about to rocket up and the Resolution Foundation predicting a big squeeze year for those on low-incomes, preparing to address that for students feels like a high priority to me – and a thing where government help would be both appropriate and very welcome.

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