Indie SAGE returns with a statement on the sector’s bleak midwinter

The independent version of SAGE is back with a new set of recommendations on universities and the winter. Jim Dickinson weighs up the proposals.

Remember Independent SAGE? Politicians don’t seem to listen much to the scientists on actual SAGE these days, let alone the punk rock indie version that sprung up in the wake of SAGE’s formation.

But Indie SAGE’s work is always worth noting – and here they’ve published a new statement on “University Winter Term 2020 and Winter-Spring Transitions in the Context of SARS-CoV-2” – better known as their thoughts on the new English national lockdown, the Christmas conundrum and what happens in the new year.

Here I go again on my own

Let’s look at Lockdown 2 first of all, where it won’t surprise you to learn that its recommendation remains that teaching should be online except for some lab- or practice based courses / components.

There’s a bunch of reasons for that – it says that minimising in-person teaching removes the risk that breaching residential bubbles brings since there is little overlap between courses and accommodation, and it “hugely reduces” the number of daily journeys including on public transport, both within and between campuses, and within and between towns and cities, where students and staff live (and thus aligns to national restrictions alongside other adults).

“We agree with the government’s general instruction to not move back and forward between their permanent home and student home during term time”, it says, and therefore notes the “mixed messages to students and staff who are making thousands of trips to and from in-person teaching”. At least someone’s noticed that commuter students exist.

To be fair, DfE has noticed – it now says that it is asking providers to consider moving to online teaching where possible to do so while still achieving educational objectives. Only where education “needs to continue on site to enable access to equipment” or where “students cannot access remote delivery” should continue in a “Covid-secure way”.

The problem is that that advice isn’t for universities – it’s for FE Colleges delivering courses for adult learners. It’s not at all clear why the advice for adult learners should be any different than that for universities, and whether colleges delivering HE courses should follow this advice for “adult learning” or the advice for “higher education”. Flip a coin?

So for the rest of term it recommends that universities should “continue” with full and generous support to students on and off campus both to self-isolate and to access online learning resources, including practical needs (e.g., food, laundry), learning (e.g., IT, connectivity), and social and emotional needs (e.g., buddy systems, regular wellbeing checks, online events). The trouble is that the further you get from university-run halls, the more work that “continue” is doing there – and we suspect the less likely it is that students are adhering to test and trace rules.

Plus universities should support staff who are self-isolating (e.g., for those with childcare responsibilities as school outbreaks continue, and in a range of other circumstances, including shielding), support those whose jobs are tied to campus, and provide resources (especially sufficient IT) to enable staff to deliver online learning. All sensible stuff.

Ding dong guidance from on high

Next up there’s thoughts on this Christmas conundrum. Indie SAGE says here that maintaining in-person teaching until the end of term removes students’ ability and choice to return home before the end of term, forcing mass movement in December – and also notes that concentrating travel in December may make it unaffordable for international students and, as seen across the pandemic, flights may be cancelled. This, it says, will create inequities and isolation since domestic students are likely to be able to travel home more readily.

It’s opposed to the mooted “two weeks isolation” up to 22nd December to permit safe travel home because a) students and their parents are likely to take decisions unilaterally; b) travelling on public transport, within or beyond the UK, breaks any period of isolation, and c) it will concentrate journeys on and around 22nd December. Amen.

It also calls the government on its assertions about the mental health benefits of its “stay put” order. “Some students may prefer to reduce isolation and protect their well-being by returning home to live with family and learn from there”, it says, noting that “current travel guidance removes student choice”.

So to tackle the issue, Indie SAGE says that students should be permitted to return and learn from home at any point from now onwards – which is what appears to be happening anyway, so it’s less a recommendation and more an admission of inevitability (albeit that Indie SAGE says the rest of the term’s accommodation fees should be refunded and without educational penalty. Yeah right.)

What they’re basically saying is that we should spread out the return home for as many weeks as possible – and noting that even a relaxation of the “stay where you are” order would create a bulge, then says that universities should plan for phased travel, enabled by online learning.

Moonshot is in the mix – it argues that if possible, students should self-isolate and/or be tested (ideally, two negative tests in succession) before returning home, as well as when home – and testing capacity must be increased to enable this to happen. Both staff and students who need to travel at the end of term should be able to isolate / get tested ahead of the vacation in order to be able to see family, rather than spend the vacation weeks in isolation.

And crucially, both upcoming mass movements should be “managed collaboratively across the sector” rather than each university staggering its own travel timeline without reference to others – because many cities have several higher education institutions. From what we can see, case rates in university settings have been falling sharply since a peak in early October. So in theory, students going home now is risky, but it is much, much, less risky than it was. Unless you’re worried that students have now wised up to the implications of self-isolation rules and are not getting tests.

Spring forward

There’s not actually much in there about the new year – Indie SAGE does say that (most) students should continue learning online for the start of the new term in January 2021, with review points, pivoting later to in-person teaching. It also says that from January, students should be offered the choice of whether to live on campus, in their university accommodation, or at home elsewhere – and to learn online from either location.

Naturally, because we don’t really “know” whether the student migration has “caused” the big second peak (or at least contributed to it) this is a group of scientists doing their best in a kind of information vacuum. It’s not clear whether we ever will know – but if halls of residence really were the epicentre of urban amplification of the virus in September and early October, it does seem odd that the current default plan seems to be to do it all again – only with plane loads more international international students arriving (both January starts and those that delayed) to make those halls even more densely populated.

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