Efforts to reopen universities in the midst of the pandemic appeared to be unravelling tonight, as three of the country’s largest universities called a halt to face-to-face teaching.
More than 80 universities in the UK have reported at least 5,000 confirmed cases of Covid-19 among students and staff, including more than 1,000 at the University of Manchester, which announced that it was suspending in-person teaching.
It came as 14,542 new cases were confirmed across the UK on Tuesday, up 2,000 on the previous day. Seventy-six Covid patients were confirmed to have died and 2,833 were in hospital with the virus.
With Manchester among the worst-hit parts of the country, both the University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University (MMU) said they would stop classes and seminars, except for a handful of specialist courses, and move to online teaching until at least the end of October.
“Manchester’s universities are moving online to manage outbreaks that could have been prevented had they listened to us sooner,” said Martyn Moss, regional officer for the University and College Union (UCU), which called ten days ago for all university classes to be held online.
The University of Sheffield, which reported nearly 600 confirmed cases among students and staff, also said it will stop face-to-face teaching other than for clinical courses until 19 October.
“We will use this transition period to put in place additional risk mitigation measures that will allow for the resumption of face-to-face teaching,” Sheffield’s vice-chancellor, Koen Lamberts, said in an email to staff.
Staff at Northumbria University – which announced 770 confirmed cases among its students on Friday – voted in an emergency meeting on Tuesday to hold a strike ballot, as well as calling for the university’s vice-chancellor, Andrew Wathey, to resign immediately.
Northumbria’s UCU branch has begun formal dispute proceedings after it accused the university’s management of failing to address health and safety concerns. Newcastle is also one of the worst-affected areas in the UK, with more than 1,200 new coronavirus cases over the last seven days.
Other universities also said they had mounting outbreaks two weeks after students moved into campuses at the start of the new academic year.
MMU revealed that it had 500 confirmed cases on 27 September, shortly after it ordered 1,700 students to go into isolation at its halls of residence. Ninety-one of its students have been fined £50 and received a warning after breaking social distancing rules or attending parties in student residences, while another 39 have received warnings.
Outbreaks continue to rise around the country, with Aberdeen reporting a total of 122 cases, and Exeter University saying it was at the centre of nearly 300 new cases reported in the town. The University of Birmingham is said to have around 300 cases of infections among its students.
The number of state schools in England having to partially close because of Covid-19 infections among pupils and staff also rose again last week, according to the latest figures from the Department for Education.
While the number of pupils in attendance improved, the proportion of schools without significant numbers of pupils for coronavirus-related reasons continued to rise, from 6% to 7%, or more than 1,500 schools in total.
In his speech to the Conservative party conference, Boris Johnson said he wanted to extend the use of one-to-one tuition currently being planned to help pupils catch-up with the learning lost because of coronavirus.
“We can all see the difficulties, but I believe such intensive teaching could be transformational, and of massive reassurance to parents,” Johnson said, without giving further details.
But teaching unions poured cold water on Johnson’s ambition, questioning how many pupils will benefit and whether the money could be better spent.
“Untested, rushed plans will always lead to dysfunction. What is presented as a magic solution for disadvantaged young people could result in less time being spent with qualified teachers,” said Kevin Courtney, joint general secretary of the National Education Union.
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