Universities should move lessons online for the final week of term amid concerns around the spread of the new Omicron variant, a union has said.
The University and College Union (UCU) is calling on institutions to switch classes from face-to-face to online to protect students ahead of Christmas.
The plea comes after the Department for Education (DfE) told universities to “remain open for face-to-face teaching as planned” after the Government announced Plan B restrictions.
Imperial College London has already asked staff to move their teaching online for the final days of term amid a rapid rise in Covid-19 cases on campus.
The University of Oxford has said there were 170 active Covid-19 cases at the institution as of December 8, an increase of 33% on the previous week, with many confirmed as being the Omicron variant.
Last year, ministers moved too slowly, effectively denying there was a need to suspend in person activities while new variants developed, leading to mass outbreaks. We can avoid that situation by moving the final week onlineUCU general secretary Jo Grady
The union, which represents university and college staff, says moving lessons online for the final week can reduce social mixing and allow students to return home for Christmas before cases rise further.
It adds that employers should be prepared to move beyond government guidance to protect staff and students from outbreaks on campuses.
Updated DfE guidance for universities says: “Teaching and learning should not be moved online as a result of the work from home guidance and staff can continue to attend work as necessary to deliver this.”
Students have experienced more in-person lessons during this term, but some universities have kept some large lectures online amid the pandemic.
The union is also calling for risk assessments to be conducted after the festive period before students and staff are scheduled to return.
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “The safety of staff and students in post-16 education must be the priority, and with government guidance yet again falling short, it falls on employers to ensure appropriate mitigations are in place for the remainder of the year.
“Instructions to move online in universities for the final week are the most sensible temporary measure and will allow university students to return home rather than risk unnecessary infection and isolation in their accommodation over Christmas.”
We need to take urgent measures to reduce the spread of the virus and keep the community safeEmma McCoy, Imperial’s vice-provost, education and student experience
She added: “In both colleges and universities we need new rapid risk assessments and measures in place which must include allowing staff who can work from home to do so.
“We also want to see the mandated wearing of masks for any staff and students on site, including in areas where lessons and lectures are still taking place.
“Last year, ministers moved too slowly, effectively denying there was a need to suspend in-person activities while new variants developed, leading to mass outbreaks. We can avoid that situation by moving the final week online.”
In a message to students on Wednesday, Emma McCoy, Imperial’s vice-provost (education and student experience), said the university was “experiencing rapidly rising Covid-19 case numbers, including Omicron, both in the wider community and on campus”.
She said: “We need to take urgent measures to reduce the spread of the virus and keep the community safe.
“From tomorrow, we are asking staff to move teaching online for the final days of term. Where in-person teaching is essential, we will continue – in small groups and with social distancing.
“Essential research will continue with our existing Covid-19 safety protocols, so research staff and students will be on campus in line with this policy.”
Imperial has also called for Christmas parties or large on-campus social gatherings to be cancelled or postponed.
At the University of Oxford, where the term ended last week, the vice-chancellor is encouraging staff to work from home and to cancel Christmas parties and lunches amid the rise in cases.
The organisers of Christmas carol services have been also asked to consider “the wisdom of going ahead”.
A statement from the University of Oxford said: “We can confirm there has been a significant rise in the number of Covid-19 cases at the university in recent days, including confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.
“Affected individuals are isolating in line with government guidance and their contacts are also being notified and asked to isolate.
“Oxford University is following all the new guidance introduced by the Government in response to the Omicron variant and is taking additional steps in light of the high concentration of cases around the university.
“Staff and students are being advised of these new steps today and also encouraged to use the public mobile testing unit now established in Radcliffe Square, along with our existing Early Alert Service.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokesperson said: “Universities are continuing to take steps to manage the virus, including implementation of the Plan B measures, with Covid safety precautions on campus, the provision of regular asymptomatic testing, and strongly encouraging vaccinations – with uptake in the student age population well above the national average.
“However, we recognise the need for proportionate additional safety measures, particularly in light of emerging variants.
“Universities are working closely with the health authorities and relevant government departments and will follow the most up-to-date public health advice to help keep the university community safe.
“All universities have outbreak plans agreed to prepare for any spike in cases including support for students or staff who need to self-isolate.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “Face-to-face learning is what students want and expect, and we will do everything we can to avoid any further disruption to their education – we therefore expect face-to-face teaching to continue under Plan B.”