Exclusive: Bristol Uni planning to scrap social distancing for September

There will still be ‘fewer in-person [teaching] hours than pre-pandemic’

Bristol Uni is planning on scrapping social distancing on campus for 2021/22, The Bristol Tab has learned.

Documents leaked to The Bristol Tab show that Bristol Uni anticipates “a more normal educational delivery in 2021/22”, although mitigations will be in place “to limit interactions and lower infection risk”.

The university also says that there will be “fewer in-person [teaching] hours than pre-pandemic” because the university will have to “set limits for teaching spaces based on risk reduction approach, assuming no social distancing”.

As a result of these limits “some in-person teaching may need to be online”.

Exams in January and Summer 2022 will still be online, with exceptions for certain practical subjects where required. The Bristol Tab exclusively revealed that Bristol Uni says more students are cheating or colluding in online exams.

That said, the plans say very clearly: “We expect students to be based in Bristol for their studies”.

The university also has plans in place to move teaching online should there be “further restrictions or outbreaks”, which leaves the picture of the next academic year looking fairly similar to this one.

At Tuesday night’s press conference, Boris Johnson said that there will be a third wave of the Coronavirus “at some stage this year”, meaning that although this is the current plan, the situation may change depending on restrictions in place. The university said in a statement: “we are not able to provide absolute clarification at this stage”.

However, according to the university’s planning document: “The expert opinion of Bristol’s SAG [Scientific Advisory Group] is that the vaccination programme and other mitigations during 2021 will result in a significantly reduced incidence of the virus by September.”

It adds: “The University needs to keep in step with the rest of society, and therefore we are planning on the assumption of no social distancing on campus, with alternative mitigation measures in place.”

A poll of 613 Bristol students taken last night and this morning reveals that 38 per cent expect teaching to remain online from September, with 62 per cent expecting in-person teaching as normal.

Earlier this week, the university announced the postponement of all graduation ceremonies until Spring 2022 due to “uncertainty in respect to large scale indoor events”, despite the expected end of Covid restrictions on June 21st.

As part of Bristol’s planning, the university explored five different scenarios for teaching in 2021/22, ranging from option “A”, which is what is currently in place for most students who are being taught online, to option “E”, which is going fully back to normal.

Bristol’s Executive Board, comprised of the Vice Chancellor, Pro-Vice Chancellors, and Deans of Faculties, agreed to scenario “D”, which is the option with the fewest restrictions, but with some mitigations still in place. These include mandatory face coverings if that is still a public health requirement, enhanced cleaning, sanitising stations, and ventilation.

Bristol Uni's leaked plans for teaching in 2021/22

The five scenarios explored by Bristol Uni’s Executive Board (they have chosen scenario D)

Managers hope to retain the parts of blended learning that have worked well, including the flexibility of asynchronous online lectures, while reverting to in-person teaching for practical course elements and seminars.

Students noted in surveys and focus groups that some units have heavy asynchronous workloads, which the documents describe as “uneven and unmanageable”.

The university is now recommending a minimum of six hours of live teaching per week, with the documents noting that “student expectations are that the majority of these should be in-person”.

There will also be a recommended cap on asynchronous learning of 12 hours per week for the whole programme, or four hours per week, per unit.

However, the university does plan on keeping live online lectures, as staff have noted that there is generally higher attendance at online lectures than in-person ones.

The university will also be making improvements to Blackboard, and have noted issues with Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Blackboard Collaborate that have caused difficulties with teaching this year.

It is clear that the university is much more prepared than it was at the start of this academic year, and reduced restrictions in 2021/22 is excellent news for students. But it is hard to know how long that will last.

A Bristol Uni spokesperson said: “Like all universities we have begun the process of looking at how the next academic year could look.

“However, given the ongoing uncertainties surrounding the pandemic we are not able to provide absolute clarification at this stage.

“We have consulted widely with staff and with student representatives to understand the most valued aspects of blended learning – both in-person and online education. Our planning is informed by this consultation and by the work of the University of Bristol’s Scientific Advisory Group (SAG), balancing educational priorities and safety.

“The document contains suggestions and proposals as we look to offer our students the very best educational experience. We are using the government’s checkpoints of 17 May and 21 June to align our assumptions and ensure our plans are in step with external conditions related to Covid, so these should not be taken as read, or disseminated as the final word on next year’s plans.

“We will keep everyone in our community up to date with the latest developments as and when we have them.”

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