As I write this, colleges and schools are heading into the last weekend before what in the general discourse has been called the “full reopening”. It is, of course, far from that. Colleges – and, for that matter, schools – have been open for some students, and some staff have been in their workplaces regularly for months – whether that has been to provide support services or to deliver classes.
And since prime minister Boris Johnson announced that colleges should prepare to open for all learners from Monday, staff in colleges have been working harder than ever. Setting up large-scale Covid testing operations, organising the logistics of learners (and more staff) arriving and moving around campus in a socially distanced way, engaging with community stakeholders like public transport and partner schools and universities – from estates teams to lecturers and senior leadership teams, staff have been working flat out. All, obviously, while teaching continued alongside that.
Back to college: All students to return from 8 March
Covid rapid testing: How will it work in FE?
Colleges, on top of that, have had the added challenge of working out what exactly it was the government expected. One senior leader told me this week that preparing for full reopening was “a challenge”. The frustration of working out what the government guidance meant, and whether the omission of an “and colleges” meant that it did not apply, or that they had simply been forgotten, was tiring and added to the anxiety, he said.
Back to college: Frustration over government Covid guidance
One only needs to look at the government’s #Backtoschool campaign that, it turns out, is, in fact, the #Backtoschoolandcollege campaign, to feel that that point is well made.
Just had confirmation from @educationgovuk that the #backtoschool campaign is, in fact, also for students returning to college. This is exactly the sort of messaging I wrote this about last week https://t.co/EOR0sTH00f— Julia Belgutay (@JBelgutay) March 1, 2021
Colleges are also often much bigger than schools in terms of student and staff numbers – meaning many, many more tests, more stakeholders, more hassle (and I am not for one second implying that it has not been challenging for schools).
Another principal reminded me today that, in fact, this is not only not really a “reopening”, it is the third time colleges are getting ready to welcome more students. Still, it will require a mammoth effort across the board – changing the culture to introduce face coverings across campus – including in the classroom, doing test runs of testing facilities and areas likely to be busy when learners arrive or leave, and organising a timetable that might, for example, see some students do online classes in the morning, come into college for testing at lunchtime, and then do a face-to-face class in the afternoon. At many colleges, staff have been redeployed to help with that effort.
“We feel as prepared as we can. It has been an incredible amount of work and incredibly long hours. That has been across the whole organisation. I can’t think of an area of the college that hasn’t been affected,” one principal told me.
That will, inevitably, have an impact on an already very tired workforce. “We all know that the workload is a challenge nationally and we have tried to come up with strategies locally, but there is no getting away from that,” she said.
Finally, it is also worth noting one more thing. A “full reopening” does not mean a return to normal. Not by a long stretch. College life will not be what it was pre-pandemic for a long time to come. For many, blended learning will continue. Students on campus will wear face coverings, avoiding gathering in groups, and most likely be reluctant to hang around before or after class. No full cafes and college canteen, no coming close to see what exactly a lecturer is doing with some tool or other. That, again, will take its toll, both on learners and on college staff.
Monday’s return will be a step towards the busy college campuses we are used to. There will be many who are looking forward to it. And colleges will be ready – they always are. But next week will feel different to what we were all used to before coronavirus struck – and I hope it doesn’t exacerbate the exhaustion that many in the sector already feel, before the grand “reopening” even takes place.