Face to face teaching all but banned across parts of Scotland

Eight universities and several colleges across Scotland will be all but banned from delivering face to face teaching from Friday.

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has announced that several local authorities will move into the highest protection level (Tier 4) as efforts continue to suppress Coronavirus in the weeks up to Christmas.

The City of Glasgow, Renfrewshire, East Renfrewshire, East Dunbartonshire, West Dunbartonshire, North Lanarkshire, South Lanarkshire, East Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Stirling and West Lothian will move from Level 3 – where they have been since the new levels system was announced – to Level 4.

That means that the University of Glasgow, Strathclyde, Glasgow Caledonian, UWS, Stirling, Royal Conservatoire, Glasgow School of Art, and SRUC in Ayr – as well as a host of colleges – will be required to move all teaching online except for “critical and time-sensitive” learning, and assessments and work placements that either can’t be delivered remotely or postponed.

Three weeks ago it was announced that large parts of Scotland – covering a significant proportion of the country’s higher education campuses – were to be subject to “local protection level 3”. The news intensified already significant confusion and debate surrounding the meaning of “blended – restricted”, a description of the restrictions that apply to further and higher education in levels 3 and 4, up from merely “blended” in levels 0, 1 and 2.

Back then the Scottish Government confirmed that it was still consulting on the meaning of the terms for HE and FE, with some pressing for “restricted” to mean a move towards only “essential” face to face teaching, some arguing that the current situation in most universities already represented “restricted blended”, and others pushing for more stringent restrictions to apply at level 4.

Well now we belatedly have an answer, because late into the evening guidance on the meaning of “restricted – blended” finally appeared – and it would be fair to say that we’re at the more restrictive end of allowed delivery than many were expecting or hoping for.

In Levels 0-2, universities implement blended learning and identify the appropriate blend of delivery, “reflecting what will best ensure compliance with public health requirements while providing high quality learning as well as supporting more vulnerable learners and staff”.

That’s pretty much the status quo – deliver what you can in accordance with the guidance on safety.

There’s some additional explanatory detail that helps (belatedly) manage expectations:

  • Staff and students may spend time on campus, albeit not in the numbers or as frequently as before the virus. The learning environment will be different from “normal.”
  • Recognising that there may be negative impacts to students and others if access to education is limited, colleges and universities should carefully consider the appropriate use of risk and equality impact assessments in deciding the scope and scale of face-to-face teaching and support services.
  • For all in-person activity, mitigation measures should be put in place to manage risk.
  • Large scale teaching events indoors must continue to be avoided. The expectation is that most face-to-face engagement will be in much smaller groups. Physical distancing measures should be in place in all situations.
  • For contact tracing purposes, a record of the contact details of students attending in-person sessions should be kept. Colleges and universities should keep records of staff and students who have attended on-site classes and activities. Records should also be kept of visitors and contractors. Particular attention should be made to the guidance on lawful data collection and management.

Questions over what should and shouldn’t be allowed and the way in which draft core guidance was relaxed when published has been the subject of much debate, with an FOI request revealing the lobbying that went on behind the scenes.

So when, a few weeks back, universities in Scotland were attempting to argue that “restricted – blended” actually meant “status quo”, eyebrows were raised – not least because various people wondered what would change if universities in those areas were to move back into Tiers 2, 1 or 0.

Now, not wanting to be accused of being soft on the virus or being a pushover, the Scottish Government has erred on the side of caution for its definitions of Tier 3 and 4.

In Tier 3 (where much of urban Scotland is right now), learning and teaching has be “predominantly” online, with in-person provision only where it is judged necessary to fulfil learning outcomes – such as for subjects which require clinical, practical or a vocational/professional learning element, and to support student welfare and retention.

Universities have to review each course and support services – taking into account risks associated with the increased prevalence of the virus at this level – to determine the balance of provision and whether more elements should be temporarily moved online. Readers in England will recognise this as being pretty close to DfE Tier 2.

Level 4 is then even tougher. Learning and teaching “will be online” with an exception for the delivery of critical and time-sensitive learning, assessments and work placements that cannot be delivered remotely or postponed. Critical in-person student wellbeing and studying support services can continue. Readers in England will recognise this as being pretty close to DfE Tier 3.

The changes to protection levels will come into effect at 6pm on Friday 20 November and will remain in place for three weeks until Friday 11 December. The list of areas in each level is here.

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