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How Further Education Institutions Are Getting Ready To Welcome Back Students

Further Education

On the 8th of March, students across England returned to the classroom for the first time in months. For many families, it has been the first step towards normalcy since the initial lockdown in early 2020. As all colleges and further education institutions reopened their doors, many of them have opted for a phased return, blended learning arrangement, rigorous covid-19 testing management in colleges, and other initiatives to help them get ready to welcome students back to full-time further education.

Blended Learning Implemented To Stagger Overpopulation

While the government has intended that schools and universities maximise in-person student return, the released guidelines have allowed for flexibility in delivery – something colleges are taking advantage of. Phase 1, which commenced on 22 February, prioritised the return of senior phase learners for essential practical work. 

For Phase 2, colleges have continued to introduce a blend of on-campus and online learning as they choose a staggered approach. This has come as pushback from educational leaders, who called on the UK to adopt a phased return similar to Wales and Scotland. However, not all further educational institutions have supported this idea, and with the entire student population returning on the same day, concerns about transmission spikes in the next few weeks are rife. If this does happen, many schools will have crafted a Covid-10 response package, including remote learning shift protocols, by now.

Standard Covid-19 Testing And Reaction Protocols In Place

As a part of the lockdown roadmap set out by the prime minister on 22 February, college students are to be tested twice a week – both on-site and at home. The released guidelines also stated that college student households and support bubbles will be encouraged to order a home test or undergo regular testing, to minimise the spread of Covid-19. However, it has been up to schools to decide how they want to test students over the school week. It is also expected that students will be expected to take part in home testing, with the use of rapid use test kits in the coming months.

Educational institutions are also stepping up their cleaning routines to prepare classrooms and facilities for in-person learning. While the Covid-19 virus mainly spreads from respiratory droplets, it can also spread from contaminated surfaces such as desks or shared lab equipment on practical courses. With that in mind, many universities and colleges have put out statements on their approach to disinfecting and sanitising the premises, particularly for high traffic areas such as washrooms or reception areas. For instance, the University of Central London website states that they are following an enhanced cleaning protocol in line with government guidelines. The university uses Oxivir, a specialised hydrogen peroxide cleaning agent, and has a daily cleaning program between 5 and 8 am.

Standard Health And Safety Risk Assessment Modified For Varying FE Landscapes

Finally, further education institutions are adapting their health and safety risk assessment approaches in line with advice provided by the UK government. Published under the title, Further Education Coronavirus Operational Guidance, the document sets out a system of controls and risk assessment recommendations for colleges and universities to follow. This includes the wearing of personal protection equipment (PPE) for all staff, enhanced cleaning, and minimisation of contact between infected individuals and the general student population. For colleges with students on work placements, some have chosen to either reduce the required number of hours worked or extending the duration of the placement to 12 months.

So will these moves be enough to keep students in further education? The priority has been to get students back into the classroom, but the consequences of reopening in-person learning can be disastrous if rushed. While great progress is being seen in implementing risk controls like rigorous cleaning schedules or mask-wearing protocols, there is a key element that has been disregarded: student learning gaps and mental wellbeing. For almost a year, college and university students have had their learning and living experiences upended. Many of them have said that they can’t seem to get motivated, while others have said their mental health has suffered due to isolation and roadblocks with distance learning.

So while there seems to be quite a proactive physical approach to preparing for the return to further education, there is still a glaring gap for colleges and universities to address. Establishments will need to adapt their mental health resources to support a returning student population that has been drastically impacted by their experience over the last year.

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