Staff and students need a welcome break

Jim Dickinson has heard the news about the NHS Covid-19 vaccination programme, and thinks it might be time to "leave it til April"

Imagine you’ve been driving all day and night without a stop.

It’s been a hell of a day – you packed the car and set off early, but everything that could have gone wrong has gone wrong. The kids have been fighting in the back, there’s been endless inane chatter on the radio and you’ve been caught up in three separate major incidents on the motorway. You tried to divert your way out of two of them, but no joy – the traffic just seemed to get worse whichever way you turned.

It’s now 10pm. It’s dark. It’s raining. You are knackered. You see the sign for the motorway services up ahead. On the one hand, it’s tempting to push on through – you’re only an hour away now and everything will be better in the morning.

But your eyelids are heavy, you’re fighting back the yawns, and even though you know a stop will mean another hour on top of this endless journey, you know stopping and resting is the right and safest thing to do. Time to fill up the tank, blow what feels like a month’s wages on pick and mix and crack out the 50p pieces to get everyone’s palm read.

Roll out the barrel

The big news this weekend is that the NHS’ current plan for the covid vaccine rollout – albeit dependent on the arrival of supplies – would see the whole adult population able to begin receiving it before the end of January, according to leaked documents seen by the Health Service Journal.

In theory care home residents and staff, and healthcare workers start to be vaccinated from the beginning of December. You then work your way through the risk hierarchy until you reach a category marked “everyone aged 18-50” from late January – but with the bulk of this group vaccinated during March.

We probably shouldn’t get too carried away with this sort of thing, but if the timetable is remotely realistic, then all sorts of parts of society are going to be tempted to “wait until April”. That phrase will become the answer to everything. And carrying on, rather than pausing in Jan/Feb/Mar will be deeply unfashionable.

Put simply (and Christians, please forgive me for this, but) Easter just became the new Christmas. And higher education needs to think through the implications now.

Break’s on

The warning signs that should tell us we need to give ourselves a break are everywhere. Staff and students are knackered, and struggling. Petitions for “no detriment” policies sprang up overnight in the spring, and it’s been happening again this week.

Instead of knee-jerking our usual responses out about academic standards, we would do well to see these as coalmine canaries – cries for help from students worried about their learning that have faced isolation and disruption all term, and who need time to catch up.

The vaccine news means that quite quickly what we can start to explore is the idea of a break for both students and staff in higher education – to catch a breath, catch up on work, and recharge in January and February – and then pivot into an online only March. We then push the traditional academic year into (part of) the summer – and maybe push the start of next academic year back by six weeks or so.

Doing so would help in all sorts of ways. That delayed start to the academic year 2021/22 would help a lot with post-16 exams. If we want to keep September starts, we move things slowly back to where they were for 2-3 years, or maybe not given PQA. There are lots and lots of other practical issues to think about. But why would we subject everyone to another complex and miserable Jan/Feb/Mar when we could just “leave it til April”?

Right now, just under the surface, lots of things that people are bodging or cancelling suddenly look viable if they’re only delayed. I’m talking practical components. Work experience. Lab work. Studio time. I mean the student on the events management course that you’ve bent your standards for but that has never done the thing you said they would – organised an event.

Crucially, if all that is suddenly possible after Easter and we don’t delay, just imagine how hard done by this student cohort is going to feel. They’ll know that we’ve just pushed them out of the door.

Alternatively, imagine the joy at being able to give people a proper break and time to prep next term. We don’t have to all have all three months off, some might need to be on furlough, and as we are doing over Christmas those that remain on or around campus will need access to services. But wow. The sheer potential relief of it all. Even if the vaccine rollout slips, it would buy us a bit of time to get testing right to enable the hybrid March that we’ll need.

Practicalities

Would it work? One correspondent on Twitter says that “under normal circumstances this would be like picking up a five-storey house of cards and trying to carry it bodily to the other side of the room”, but on the other hand what’s currently planned “is like trying to do that anyway except the room is knee-deep in water and piranhas”. Worth a shot.

Another says that “knocking the resumption of teaching back to March is something like a plan”, and that while the upsides are obvious, and in normal circumstances it would break a lot of things, “most of them are already broken”.

It’s not perfect and there would be things to overcome. “Student finance and housing contracts spring to mind”, says one correspondent, “and it could also mean a second conference season affected and the income that entails (as well as staff development etc.)“

Another notes to me that it doesn’t work so well “for all the staff on temporary contracts which finish in June, or who need to frantically spend the summer finding their next job (or researching so that they can be thought qualified to get their next job)”. That would also need thought.

Another could see disquiet “if some institutions cheated and returned significantly earlier”, because “some students are very anxious about entering the job market even a few weeks after those at nearby institutions. We would need a strong regulatory steer here, I think.”

No pushover, yes pullover

All of the above is true. But with some effort, coordination, ministerial backing and a bit of luck, surely all of these issues and more are surmountable. It’s a really good bet, it ticks lots of boxes, it saves the year for furious students – I could go on and on.

If having a pause in the new year in the sector is too mind-blowing, I can easily see staff taking industrial action and students refusing to re-enrol to force it. As I said – “leave it til April” is going to be the phrase on EVERYONE’S lips.

Imagine us carrying on regardless, spinning up these out-of-a-cracker lateral flow testing centres just so we can organise F2F teaching that no one comes to in the snow, when loads of the rest of society is burning off all its annual leave in January and February and saving up for the biggest Easter Bonnet Parade in history.

The sheer volume of students worried they’ve not learned enough this term, and the deep exhaustion being faced by staff should warrant a pause as a catch up period if nothing else. And if it’s a way of allowing students on practical courses the ability to get the hands-on experience they deserve, it’s what those people in those meetings call a “no brainer”.

It’s not the despair, Laura. I can take the despair. It’s the hope I can’t stand.

5 responses to “Staff and students need a welcome break

  1. Answering the question would it work by reference to two comments on Twitter is not serious analysis. Everybody wants a break, including NHS workers, teachers etc. but I presume you would not advocate shutting hospitals, schools, care homes for that reason.

  2. The knock on effects on the teaching and assessment timetable shouldn’t be underestimated, and I’d be wary of falling into the ‘summer off’ myth. With summer exams and resits, there’s not a lot of flex for pausing teaching (last year was a nightmare partly because of the smaller impact on timescales). You couldn’t catch up on a 3 month pause with a six week extension, even ignoring any non-teaching activities which institutions undertake.

    1. Absolutely. There is no 3 month stop to teaching-essential activities (examiantion, marking, assessment boards, graduation ceremonies, re-sits and re-sit assessment boards). There is maybe one slow week at the beginning of July between huge and critical assessment and progression activities. 3 months lost is 3 months lost. Progression and assessment activities would be pushed to Sept – Dec and the start of the next academic year would be January 2022.

      1. “and the start of the next academic year would be January 2022” which would dovetail nicely with the ‘no offer until exam grades known’ acceptance.

  3. Sadly. my initial response to this was ‘Oh no, another new thing. Something else for students to ask us questions about that we won’t be able to answer because the institution won’t have made a decision.’ Yes, I am exhausted – too exhausted to change my plans *again*

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