Coronavirus (COVID-19): Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges: advice note for adaptation to help manage the next phase and future phases of COVID-19

Coronavirus (COVID-19) Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges: advice note for adaptation to help manage the next phase and future phases of COVID-19 on 7 February 2022.

Background and context

This advice note is to support universities, colleges and the Community Learning and Development (CLD) sectors when considering suitable adaptation approaches to COVID-19, as it moves out of the Omicron wave and towards a potentially more stable situation, although much uncertainty remains about the longer term.

The Omicron variant was the most recent significant evolution of the virus. Omicron’s high level of transmissibility led to a rapid rise in infection rates across the population that peaked around mid-January where approximately one in 20 people were infected. In order to supress the virus and to mitigate the impact on harms one and two, significant protective measures were put in place during December and January. Although those measures would have to some extent reduced levels of infection, it exacerbated and compounded existing negative harm three and four impacts.

With the current Omicron BA,1 wave appearing to be past its peak in Scotland, and looking ahead to coming out of the winter period where the impacts across harms one and two are likely to have been at their most acute, attention is turning towards considering approaches to adapting for the longer term. This has been articulated by The First Minister in her statements to Parliament during the first few weeks of this year. However, it is also important to recognise that SARS-CoV-2 is still evolving and viral evolution cannot be predicted. Neither can the severity nor impact of future outbreaks and variants, so there remains a need to have an ongoing level of preparedness for such occurrences. 

The Scottish Government’s Strategic Framework update

The Scottish Government’s Strategic Framework is due to be updated by the end of February. Within this framework, the current Strategic Intent to ‘suppress the virus to a level consistent with alleviating its harms while we recover and rebuild for a better future' may see a shift in focus to managing COVID-19 proportionately. This would involve reducing harm one impacts as much as possible, whilst having a minimal degree of disruption to society and the economy during future outbreaks or with the emergence of new variants. Central to this will be the need to embed existing positive behaviours and encourage the establishment of others, whilst also looking to adapt our environments to make them more COVID-19 safe and resilient to further pandemic shocks.

Establishing the right level of guidance

Institutions have the benefit of almost two years’ experience of adapting to the pandemic. Based largely on Scottish Government guidance (the development of which has benefited from stakeholder feedback and input, together with earlier advice from this subgroup), institutions have implemented and supported a range of interventions and protective measures across the FE/HE/CLD sectors in order to mitigate the harms of the virus. As we move into what is potentially a more stable phase of the pandemic, and with the still developing understanding of the virus and experience of institutions in dealing with it, the need for detailed and prescriptive sector-specific guidance should be reviewed. However, the need for guidance or guiding principles remains – a simple reliance on non-sector-specific nationwide guidance is unlikely to be sufficient.

In place of detailed prescriptive guidance, consideration should be given to developing a broad framework that will enable decisions on COVID-19 safety protocols and measures that go beyond any required across society as a whole, to be determined locally and, where possible, collectively. This would allow local solutions tailored to particular needs and circumstances. The focus of this framework should be to provide information, high-level guiding principles and support. These local-level approaches should inform, and be informed by, a strategic stakeholder forum, which should provide for sector-wide engagement to support communication at both national and local levels. It would also enable transmission of specific information, particularly in relation to emerging COVID-19 related clinical developments to institutions. This would be key information for staff, students and learners who are clinically vulnerable. Challenges relating to compliance at a local level could be addressed where staff, students and learners agree suitable approaches and protocols in order for collective norms to be established and protective behaviours to be maintained. Maintaining protective behaviours and environments (cleaning protocols, ventilation) will facilitate on campus activity and lead to a more appropriate COVID-19 safe learning environment. Such a forum would be representative of stakeholder groups including institutional leaders, trade unions, students, accommodation providers, public health professionals etc. The existing Advanced Learning Covid Recovery Group could be repurposed to this end, with this subgroup continuing to provide advice as needed.

The balance between in-person and online teaching and learning

The subgroup agreed that returning to in-person teaching and learning (as the appropriate and desirable position for most courses) is the single most important factor to address the significant loss of learning, along with wider social harms, that students and learners have experienced during the past three academic years. Although other forms of educational delivery (such as online) have been used very effectively, and have brought significant additional benefits, including in relation to widening access, those benefits are significantly outweighed by the negative impacts experienced by students and learners, particularly those from the most socially disadvantaged and vulnerable groups. Such negative impacts include higher course drop-out rates. For their own personal development, students and learners, particularly the youngest, require the opportunity to see each other in person and should be given opportunities to make connections.

Institutions should acknowledge the challenges that many staff and students will face with the return to in-person teaching and learning, as many of them will have undertaken only limited amounts of on-campus activity during the past two years. Some will be apprehensive, particularly those who are clinically vulnerable or are in close contact with others such as family members who are clinically vulnerable. It is therefore important that consideration is given to how this transition back to greater in-person teaching/learning will be managed, and what level of support will be required to ensure that all staff, students and learners’ needs will be met. For example, what sort of technology is required to enable students who are unable to attend, to continue learning and what sort of monitoring (for example, local wastewater sampling alongside ongoing access to testing) is required to make the sector as safe as possible for students while supporting and informing them.

Online learning and good practice

Prior to the start of the pandemic, there were many very successful, established online courses, and with improving technology as well as increasing levels of digital access, the growth of online learning was set to continue and expand into areas where it could be the optimal form of educational delivery. Two years of COVID-19 restrictions has led to vastly increased levels of online learning. With that there has been the establishment of the necessary infrastructure and training of staff to enable successful implementation. Over a short space of time, this has led to the emergence of good practice and an opportunity to enhance educational delivery that would otherwise have taken many years to develop. It is important to capitalise on this rapid development of online learning provision, and where there are clear benefits identified in terms of educational delivery, they are incorporated into future provision. International learning from countries such as Estonia and Israel could support how the sector provides digital learning in addition to in-person learning. Digital approaches have been beneficial not just for teaching and learning but also for support services including counselling where digital interaction has been preferential in many cases. It is also important that this type of emerging wider good practice is incorporated into new ways of working. 

A large investment has been made to provide digital devices and related infrastructure during the pandemic. Future cohorts of students may not have access to broadband and digital equipment, so this needs to be carefully considered when designing future educational provision. Digital exclusion remains a crucial area to consider.

Ongoing management of the virus

After nearly two years of protective measures and restrictions, and with the recent Omicron BA.1 variant wave declining, there is likely to be an emerging optimism bias amongst some that COVID-19 is now in retreat and less of a threat. ‘Variant fatigue’ is a real risk to the maintenance of the previous high levels of adherence for the baseline protective measures across campuses. There have been increasing reports of incidents where students and learners are not adhering to measures such as wearing face coverings, use of one-way systems etc. and this is causing concern. Given that the current level of infection is still high, and COVID-19 still poses a threat, it is therefore important that COVID-19 safe behaviours continue to be the promoted and adhered to across campuses. Institutions, in partnerships with student associations, staff unions, Health Boards, Scottish Government and other key stakeholders all have a key role to play in this, where effective communication to students, learners and staff will be an important factor in retaining existing positive behaviours as the collective norm, and considering where additional measures may be necessary in light of the overall COVID-19 situation. Encouraging students and staff to test regularly is a key message that needs to be regularly highlighted as testing remains an important protective measure that helps limit the spread of the virus. Similarly, promoting vaccination uptake with a specific focus on boosters is another important key message that should be communicated. 

If they have not already done so, our advice is to institutions is to establish a COVID-19 Response Committee as part of ongoing preparedness, and ensure that appropriate surveillance is in place along with business continuity plans. This would also involve consideration of the potential need for a rapid switch to partial or more general online learning should that be required, and that outbreak management plans, including providing support to those self-isolating as a result, are tested regularly and revised accordingly, with local Public Health officials closely involved. Effective surveillance and data analysis will also be key for effective and timely responses. For future scenarios, international students and particularly those from low vaccine countries should be given particular consideration in relation to how they can be best facilitated in a COVID-19 safe way, while at the same time avoiding them being stigmatised. It is also important to address the challenge posed by UK-wide and international student population movement, which includes the formation of new households. These large-scale movements take place several times during the academic year and could pose a significant risk to the spread of the virus. Strong communication is needed, including messaging to students and learners regarding testing before travel and vaccination, alongside information about relevant support available.

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