Students could be grouped into “bubbles” as part of universities’ social distancing plans for 2020-21

group of university students walking through campus

Many universities set to offer a combination of in-person and online teaching

Most universities are likely to offer a mixture of online and face-to-face learning for the 2020-21 academic year, with some considering grouping students into “bubbles” to help slow the spread of coronavirus, university leaders have said.

A number of universities’ plans were published alongside Universities UK’s proposals for a set of principles that universities should consider as they come out of lockdown and start to reopen campuses in September.

These proposals follow comments from the Office for Students (OfS) that universities “must be as clear as they can” about how much of a course will be taught online next year so that applicants “know what they’re getting”.

Many of the universities’ plans involve a combination of in-person teaching and online classes. The University of Cambridge has previously said that it will be holding all of its lectures online next year, with the possibility of some smaller face-to-face groups and the University of Manchester has announced it will be taking a blended approach to the first term.

And at Staffordshire University, professor Liz Barnes said they’re considering grouping students on courses with each other in the same accommodation to create a “bubble,” similarly to the Department for Education’s guidance that schools should keep students in small groups.

“The bubble around accommodation has been discussed across a number of universities, about how best we can bring groups of students together. The more that we can keep them into a small group of regular interaction, the better in current circumstances.

“We are going to do this and there are other universities I know who are going to take a similar approach,” Barnes said.

In other measures, the Universities UK proposals recommended that universities adjust their layouts, with the possibility of using set entrances and exits, clear signage and floor markings to encourage social distancing.

Ideas for a socially distanced freshers’ week

As part of the same research, university leaders also shared their thoughts on how freshers’ week might work if social distancing guidelines are still in place.

Students could be offered virtual events, or be put into smaller groups for socialising as well as studying, commenters suggested.

“We’re working very closely with our students’ union to arrange a whole load of virtual events to make sure that we can guarantee students have social interaction with one another, irrespective of what the social distancing arrangements are at the time,” said vice-chancellor of Brunel University, Julia Buckingham.

The University of Nottingham is looking at ways to keep fresher’s week within smaller groups in halls “rather than the all-singing, all-dancing, all across the university experience they had before,” vice-chancellor Shearer West commented.

“We’re certainly planning to have people join things and get involved in societies, but we may just have to run freshers’ fair in a different kind of way depending what the rules are about social distancing,” West finished.

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