How are tiers being interpreted when it comes to face to face activity?

There’s a logic to “tiers”. They simplify restrictions and help justify what is still a fairly targeted approach to virus control.

There are problems, though. What if the triggers to get you to a tier aren’t clear? What if the decision making on who can move you to a tier isn’t clear? And what if the tiers’ meaning for you or your organisation aren’t clear?

This all matters – because some would love universities to remain delivering “blended”, and others would like to move mainly online. The process, authority and accountability of those who say yes or no to those demands matters.

Some of that relates to insurance, and liability, and legal advice, and things like entitlement to use the income protection schemes on offer. If you run a campus shop and the local PHE says “I’d like you to reduce F2F” does that mean your staff in that shop can be furloughed? Probably not.

The official position on “Tier 3” or “very high” areas in England is that universities “remain open”, and that does mean that legally the exemption on gatherings for the purposes of “education and training” remains in place in all three statutory instruments.

It’s a political position that’s been maintained ever since Boris Johnson appeared at the Commons Liaison committee back in May:

I think it’s a matter for universities but clearly… face-to-face tuition is preferable… I hope all universities understand that and see that that’s also important for their students and for social justice.”

And repeated ever since – for example Michelle Donelan at Education Questions on Monday responded to a question on why was it important to “reopen universities” as follows:

“This Government have prioritised education. We simply cannot ask students to put their lives, or their academic journeys, on hold. To do so would mean removing opportunities, damaging social mobility and punishing young people. The education and welfare of students is at the forefront of all our decisions.“

She also responded to a question challenging the “lack” of F2F teaching as follows:

Universities are offering blended learning unless they have moved to a higher covid tier, in conjunction with their local Public Health England team.

When Donelan says “Covid tier” here, she doesn’t mean the new three tier system, but the DfE education restriction tiers – they don’t automatically map across, and in and of themselves only really cover “on campus activity”. That also doesn’t mean that universities can’t decide to move up the DfE tiers voluntarily.

Here’s an interesting case study. On Thursday DfE responded to the new alert levels by amending its university campus and buildings opening advice to say:

HE providers will remain open at every alert level, with their facilities and activities reflecting wider restrictions. In consultation with your local Directors of Public Health and local partners, you should consider whether to move to a greater online provision at local COVID alert level “high” or “very high”. This is to enable you to decide what is best for teaching and learning on your campuses, as some courses require a face-to-face element.

If you’re a university that’s been saying “well the government is expecting us to still do blended so we are”, the above DfE advice clearly offers a little more wriggle room for decision making than previously.

On Friday morning, Lancashire of course moved to the national Tier 3 coronavirus alert level. At first a press release was released on behalf of Lancashire County Council, Blackburn with Darwen Council, Blackpool Council and Lancashire’s 12 district councils that included the line:

Universities are being asked to move to remote learning where possible.”

But that line is now mysteriously missing from the latest version of the release, and the universities in the region have announced they will continue with blended learning. Was the line in the press release issued in error? Did someone in the government’s “Local Action Committee command structure” overrule local public health? Was there push back or some kind of disagreement between the universities and the local authorities?

It’s even messier for non teaching activity. BUCS has been pushing for safe sport to happen to give students things to do and for sound mental health and wellbeing reasons, but that whole area is in quite a mess.

Higher education’s exemption from the ‘rule of six’ for indoor sport is still applicable for all three tiers, meaning inter-university sport, and intramural indoor sport, can still go ahead in all areas of England. Please refer to the guidance laid out by Sport England here.

It may though not be quite that simple… locally:

Essentially, the exemption for indoor sports remains for Higher Education across all three tiers, however we would recommend you contact your University Senior Leadership Team and Health and Safety office for internal confirmation. We also advise you contact your local authority as some decisions are being pushed down to local leaders to make, therefore local guidance may vary.

Clear as mud.

Generally DfE has been pretty useless over extra-curricular activity and Covid guidance at every stage of the pandemic, up to and including the new England tiers. Ditto the nations equivalents.

When you put that in context of what we know about mental health and our expectations on students to adhere once in situ, it’s really unacceptable.

All of this, by the way, is in marked contrast to that famously competent nation when it comes to the pandemic – the USA.

The White House Coronavirus Task Force issues regular public reports to each state on case numbers, putting institutional numbers (care homes, universities etc) in context and being careful to look at the actual pressure on healthcare and hospitals.

Here’s last weekend’s state report for Iowa for example, which recommends:

Work with university students to keep cases low, with the goal of low transmission in preparation for thanksgiving. Implement antibody testing to understand fraction of students who have been infected and plan for spring semester accordingly. Test all university students before dismissing them for thanksgiving.

The universities in Iowa that have been running F2F were already planning a switch to online after Thanksgiving, but the clarity of the advice linked to the numbers is fascinating.

On Monday White House officials expressed concern that infected students will go back to their home communities and spread the disease over Thanksgiving, and all week I’ve been watching universities in the US decide to move online after 26 November if they hadn’t already planned to.

It’ll be interesting to see how many that can’t afford the CDCs testing recommendations bring students back physically in the new year.

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