Decision will turn spotlight on school return after Christmas
Students at Queen’s University will be returning to remote learning when the new term begins after Christmas, the university has said.
Over 25,000 students and members of staff were contacted on Monday to inform them of the decision with the university saying it has taken clinical advice before making the arrangement.
It means a return to the lockdown which students faced at the start of 2021, and could signify what awaits the wider education sector in the new year.
Ulster University has not made any decision yet on a return to remote learning, and will wait until after a meeting of the Executive on Wednesday before making any announcement.
Queen’s said the decision was made “having reviewed the developing public health situation and taken clinical advice”.
“The majority of lectures, tutorials and seminars will be delivered online” in the new year.
Northern Ireland’s universities only returned to face-to-face teaching for almost all students in September, but the potential of widespread infections due to the arrival of the Omicron variant has forced them to rethink plans.
Most degree courses had been taught entirely online since March 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The new term is due to resume at Queen’s campuses in Belfast on Monday, January 10, but many students will now be staying at home.
Hebe Lawson from London, a third year English and Politics student at Queen’s, told the BBC that it felt odd to introduce the measure when pubs and clubs remained open.
Speaking at Belfast City Airport before flying home for the Christmas break, she said the plans for remote learning meant she did not see the point of coming back to Belfast for the start of the new term.
“I could stay at home very easily, but I’m in my third year so I’ve set up a bit of a life for myself in Northern Ireland,” said Ms Lawson.
“So I know I want to come back and do as much as I can independently.”
She said she understood the need for precaution with the rapid spread of the Omicron variant, but called it “a very strange alternative” when students were still permitted to go to clubs and bars in Northern Ireland.
“Education is the first thing to be cut is strange to me and doesn’t seem to add up,” she added.
Ms Lawson said numerous interruptions caused by the pandemic as well as teaching strikes during her degree meant she did not feel she was getting value for money.
Queen's University said that exams which had been scheduled for the week before that, due in the week beginning Tuesday, 4 “will proceed as planned, with enhanced social distancing in place”.
Students will be contacted by their schools and departments about arrangements for exams due to take place from January 10, but any teaching will be online for the majority of pupils from that date.
Some classes, which have to take place face-to-face, will go ahead on campus, including some laboratory sessions or classes in clinical skills as part of medical courses.
“For a minority of students, therefore, it is possible that some classes may need to take place in person and on campus during this period,” the university said.
“Where this is the case, your school will contact you directly.”
Staff and postgraduate students have been told to work from home if possible but the university libraries and student support services will remain open.
The university said that it had taken the decision to resume widespread remote learning “as a precautionary measure” and would keep students and staff “updated as the public health situation evolves”.
Ulster University said it will wait for the executive meeting on Wednesday before confirming arrangements for the new term in January.
“We are monitoring the situation closely and any adjustments to our semester two operations will be made following the executive meeting and any associated guidance on Wednesday,” the university said.
The move will put added pressure on the Executive to make a decision on the return of school pupils in January, though the Department of Education has remained consistent in its approach that any schools closures will be a last resort.
Teaching unions have suggested a phased return of pupils after the Christmas break, which they say would help schools manage staff shortages due to serious issues in securing substitute teachers.
The NASUWT has also written to the Minister warning the negative impact of last year must not be repeated and said a staggered return of pupils should be considered.
The union recommended ending non-essential activities and providing on-site testing and said further guidance was needed to ensure schools remained open for all children.
“Since schools returned after the summer the NASUWT have called for the strengthening of control measures within schools,” said General Secretary for the organisation, Dr Patrick Roach.
“Since then, the forecast scientific trajectory for the Omicron variant has worsened significantly and available evidence strongly points to the need for additional control measures to be in place now and through the start of next term.
“The NASUWT believes that these measures, together with wider government measures including on vaccinations, are proportionate and responsible, and will contribute to our shared aim of minimising further disruption to children’s education.”
Queens’ Student Union president Katie Ni Chleire said she understood the need to adapt to the public health situation but it is the students who are going to be “significantly impacted” by the move.
"During the pandemic students have continued to pay full tuition fees even though their student experience has suffered greatly over a prolonged period of time,” she said.
"We are calling on the NI Executive to ensure that additional support is provided to students to reduce the significant impact of another period of disruption to their learning.
"Queen’s Students’ Union’s will remain open, and our priority is ensuring that our students are represented and supported during this time.”
Last week Ms McIlveen admitted school attendance figures were not as high as her department would like, but urged schools to continue to follow public health guidelines.
Schools have been told they can move to remote learning for some pupils on a temporary basis when a class has been advised to self-isolate due to Covid-19 or when there are not enough teachers or support staff to operate.