Freshers Week 2020 and Covid-19: could all university teaching go online?

student at her laptop listening to an online lecture

University staff want in-person teaching to be scrapped to avoid coronavirus outbreaks

Students throughout the UK have been packing up and moving to university over the past couple of weeks – but what should be an incredibly exciting time has been disrupted by restrictive social distancing guidelines and local Covid-19 outbreaks.

So far, there have been confirmed coronavirus cases at universities including Manchester Metropolitan, University of Liverpool, Glasgow University, Oxford Brookes, University of Bath and St Andrews.

Most universities are offering a combination of online teaching and face-to-face lessons, while also asking students to observe social distancing guidelines outside the classroom and avoid going to big Freshers Week parties

But some fear that, even if with guidelines in place, around one million students moving around the UK to go to university is enough to cause dramatic outbreaks of coronavirus and the only safe solution is to scrap all face-to-face teaching in favour of virtual classes. 

Members of the University and College Union (UCU) at Newcastle and Northumbria have written letters to their universities to urge them to stop any in-person teaching and move it all online.

There have not yet been any reported cases of students with coronavirus at either of these particular universities, but “given the current restrictions in the region, the direction of the infection rate and the problems with test and trace, it is clearly far too soon for a mass return to campus,” said UCU regional official, Iain Owens.

“As civic universities, we have a responsibility to our city to ensure against a community overspill and that students are not scapegoated for a rise in the infection rate.

“We have been warning for weeks of the dangers of universities persisting with in-person teaching, especially without a UK-wide track and trace system and regular testing of students and staff. Without urgent action, it will be impossible for universities to avoid becoming incubators of Covid and university communities becoming transmission hotspots,” Owens finished.

More like this: eight tips for beating your nerves about starting university in 2020

university students wearing face masks and sitting on steps outside

Government has attempted to “demonise young people and students,” UCU says

A previous survey by UCU showed that more than half (57%) of non-student university town residents feared that students coming back to university would cause local lockdowns.  

“It’s irresponsible for university leaders and the government to be encouraging students to move into communities and simultaneously not take steps to ensure that they don’t then become scapegoated for any predictable outbreaks,” commented Jo Grady, UCU’s general secretary.

“The government has attempted over the past few weeks to cast the net of blame very widely and demonise young people and students.

“It’s a complete abdication of leadership and responsibility. Even the government’s own scientific advisers have said there will be outbreaks in universities in November and teaching will need to move online,” Grady finished.

A Department for Education (DfE) spokesperson said that “the safety of university students, staff and local residents is our top priority, and every effort is being made by the government and universities to ensure that students return to campus as safely and sensibly as possible.

“We have already seen universities put in place a range of protective measures, such as limiting travel into campus, staggering class times over extended days, and reinforcing hand hygiene. 

“Our updated higher education guidance includes advice on what a provider should do in the event of a local lockdown, track and trace procedures, the creation of new households in student accommodation and reflects the latest social gathering restrictions.”

Find out more about the kind of safety measures universities will likely be taking in this article here.

Keeping campus bars open could help contain any outbreaks

Keeping campus bars and cafes open could be one solution to help stop coronavirus spreading too quickly in university towns, the director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), Nick Hillman, has suggested.

“That is a real challenge for universities, because some people seem to think that the best thing to do would be for universities to close their bars and their cafes, but of course if you close your bars and your cafes, your students go out even more into the host community,” Hillman told the i newspaper.

“Actually it might be more responsible for universities to keep some of their cafes and bars open so that students socialise with students,” Hillman added.

More like this: how to make the most of your study space for online learning at university

students in face masks buying coffees

TSR members share their experiences of university so far this year

If you’re affected by this, here are some things that other students in the community have been doing to make friends and enjoy their time at university. 

The vast majority of universities will be holding online Freshers events as well as continuing to run societies and groups, TSR members have pointed out. 

“I found the best way [to make friends] was going to a society that focuses more on talking and activities rather than going out clubbing. I know Covid has changed things but a lot of societies are still holding online meetings and activities,” said abcdxyz22.

And an anonymous TSR member shared that they “downloaded a dating app (something I hadn’t done before lockdown) and have started speaking to a very attractive fourth year who I think is keen to meet at some point after I move in.” 

In-person meet-ups might be trickier than usual, but students are still allowed to interact within their household bubble. 

“I just made sure to find lots of excuses to pop out into the kitchen when I heard people around (eg getting a glass of water, putting something away in the cupboard etc) and eventually I'd spoken to all [my flatmates],” commented an anonymous TSR member. 

Finally, a general piece of advice from TCL: “if you are feeling down, contact student support, they will have ideas for you and may be able to point you to the places where you will fit in. You should not just stay in your room getting sadder”.

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