Why leaders urgently need a clear decision on reopening

As rumours spread about delays to the start of term, the Association of Colleges' David Hughes reflects on what it could mean for colleges
29th December 2020, 3:53pm
David Hughes


Why leaders urgently need a clear decision on reopening

The Number Of College Students In Scotland Has Fallen By 26,000

It's less than a week before the new term begins and the uncertainties we have all lived with during this pandemic are still with us. The situation has changed, with a new strain able to spread even more efficiently, but the remedies are seemingly still very simple - social distancing, quarantining, lockdowns.

For college leaders, their much-needed break will have been all-too-short-lived, what with trying to plan for mass testing of students to be in place from the beginning of January and worrying about the government announcing a delay to the beginning of term. Not to mention the preparation for the January series of exams, which begin next week and involve over 135,000 college students.

All three issues are cloaked in uncertainty and fraught with devil and deep blue sea decisions for the government to make. The key question around the decision to delay the start of term is whether it is better to sacrifice a few more weeks of face-to-face teaching in the hope that the R rate will fall below one and more lives will be saved.

News: New school opening delay agreed by ministers

More: Forces ready to go into schools to help Covid testing

Background: What the staggered January return means for FE?

We now know that colleges can and will do their utmost to ensure good teaching and learning can happen remotely, but we also know that there are around 100,000 young college students without digital devices or access. Their needs are hard to meet, particularly because the government's central procurement of devices announced before Christmas will not arrive soon enough.

The logistics of a delayed term

On balance, though, it would be no surprise if the wider safety of the population took precedence over keeping schools and colleges open. A delayed term would be logistically difficult, but colleges would manage it even better than they did when the first lockdown began all those months ago. Students might even be half expecting it, and would manage, even though it is not at all desirable. There would be more impact on mental health, on isolation and potentially on safeguarding to deal with, and for some, it would mean even more lost learning.

It's likely that colleges would remain open for vulnerable students. Less certain is what the government will decide about the January exams - I am sure that they would want them to go ahead, but the logistics of running these exams safely while establishing the capacity to carry out mass testing is, well, testing. For half of colleges, they will struggle to even have the space to do both, let alone recruiting and training the staff to do it all.

On top of all of that, there is much speculation about the efficacy of lateral flow tests. The only certainty is that these rapid tests are not 100 per cent accurate, but then no tests are. There is good evidence from two pieces of research (Oxford University and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine) that, used effectively and intensively (probably weekly), they will provide an additional line of defence in finding people with the virus but without symptoms. Every positive found means one less spreader.

There is also research from Birmingham University, however, suggesting that the results are not so good with university students self-testing. No doubt we'll find out more over the coming months, but that's not much help for college leaders facing the Herculean task of getting the testing up and running in double-quick time. One other piece of evidence might help here, with at least one college finding that piloting the testing gave more confidence to staff and students when combined with all of the other safety procedures and practices.

One certainty is that colleges still have the choice as to whether to establish a testing facility or not. The guidance from the DfE was clear on that, allowing college leaders to either start setting up now, or to wait a few days until there is clarity on other issues before they decide. Or indeed to decide now not to set up testing. I suspect that there will be colleges in each of those groups - the early adopters, the wait-and-sees and the not-our-jobs.

No right or wrong decisions

The bottom line is that nobody would want to be in the shoes of college and school leaders at the moment. Opening as planned will be tough, with potentially high absences and staff and students nervous because of the new strain. Delaying opening will bring lots of challenges to ensure learning continues and students are motivated, safe and well.

Establishing the testing will be hard work but not doing so might bring concerns from staff and students. Running the exams in January will tie up a lot of resource but postponing them will interrupt teaching. There are no clear right or wrong decisions here.

As I write this, the speculation about a delayed start to term is rising and the expectations are that there will be an announcement one way or the other tomorrow or Thursday. Once again, college leaders are being asked to make big decisions in the interests of their students and staff without the evidence to be confident, and with so much uncertainty about what the government will decide next. That's a simple but clear definition of a stressful situation.

My hope was that college leaders and their teams would be able to switch off this week, get some rest and enjoy the snow. I had hoped that the stresses and strains of the last nine months might begin to abate, but that was at least one Christmas wish which didn't get delivered. I can only hope now that a decision comes very soon and some short-term certainty is offered.

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