Will we return to on-campus teaching next academic year?

As we approach the end of the 20/21 academic year during which most of our teaching has been online rather than face-to-face, a number of students have been asking me whether we will “get back to normal” next September for the start of next teaching year.

The answer I give to this is that I don’t know. It depends entirely on the progress of the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic and that has so far proved to be difficult to predict.

Over the last week, however, the news has made me lean very strongly towards a negative answer. I am now quite confident that there will be no (or at most minimal) in-person teaching at Irish universities in September 2021.

The reason I feel this is the shambolic state of Ireland’s vaccination programme. According to the updates page, as of 15th April, Ireland has administered 1,155,599 vaccine doses, including 814,470 first doses and 341,129 second doses. The figure for total doses on 1st April was 893,375. That means in the first two weeks of April just 262,224 doses have been given. The HSE’s target for April is 800,000 doses; to reach that the daily rate of dishing out vaccinations has to more than double in the second half of the month.

The slowness of the rollout is partly due to a pause in use of the AstraZeneca vaccine because of concerns about blood clots and a decision by Johnson & Johnson not to deliver its promised doses for similar reasons, leaving a shortfall in supply. But that’s not the only reason. If it were then the vaccination programme in Ireland would not be stalling at the same time as Germany’s has been accelerating.

There has been an absurd amount of dithering and disorganization in the Health Service Executive and at Ministerial level which, together with incoherent messaging, has led to administrative chaos.

The AstraZeneca vaccine will in future only be offered to those over the age of 60, with an impact on the timetable for other age cohorts. Last week the HSE announced that Irish people in the general population under the age of 60 will not get their first jab (presumably either Pfizer or Moderna) until June “at the earliest”. It seems – to say the least – unlikely that 80% of the population will receive a vaccine dose by the end of June (the official target) if they’re not going to start on the under-60s until the beginning of that month.

More recently it has been announced that the HSE is also considering changing the correct rollout programme yet again, this time moving people aged 18-30 up the batting order. (Currently the scheme for the general population is organized by age; those in the 65-69 cohort are currently registering.)

I can see the argument for doing that. Younger people tend to have a bigger cross-section for interaction, as it were, and therefore contribute more to the spread of the virus. Prioritizing them would therefore lower the rate of community transmission. On the other hand, moving younger people to a higher priority will have the effect of moving older people down it. But surely this should have been considered long before now?

If the decision is taken to do this people aged 30-50 will not get even their first dose until much later than they would under the current programme, possibly not until the autumn. The vaccination programme plays two roles: one is to protect individuals from serious illness and the other is to slow the transmission of the virus. The former approach means to prioritize the older cohorts while the second pushes in the opposite direction. It’s a difficult question and I think it’s sensible to consider moving younger adults up, though it’s not obvious to me that on balance it would be advantageous.

All of which brings me to the reason I think we won’t be doing on-campus teaching next year, at least for the first Semester. If students (who are mainly aged 18-30) are vaccinated first then most academic staff will probably not be vaccinated by September. If most academic staff are vaccinated by September then probably most students won’t be. Either way it doesn’t look good for a return to campus. I know for a fact that some Irish Universities are already planning for online teaching at the start of the 21/22 academic year. I don’t know what the plans are at my own institution.

I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but there is I am not going to support a return to face-to-face teaching on campus unless and until a majority of staff and students have been vaccinated. And I am certainly not going to return to campus until I have had both jabs. I am in the 55-60 cohort and may therefore get my first shot in June and second doses by September (although, to be honest, I wouldn’t bet on either of those possibilities).

Of course there are much wider issues to be taken into consideration than what happens in third-level institutions so I’m not saying that this should be a main policy driver, but it’s important to be aware of the ramifications. In previous manifestations of the rollout programme, those involved in delivering education where in a high priority group, but they are no longer. In lowering the priority for vaccination teaching staff, the Government has to accept that it is lowering the priority for a return to campus in September.

2 Responses to “Will we return to on-campus teaching next academic year?”

  1. I agree with all of the above, except the prediction. If over 1 M people have already received one shot, I think it’s likely that most staff and students in Ireland will be vaxxed by September, reducing the infection rate v considerably. ( I hope that what we have seen are simply teething problems and the rate of vaccination will accelerate). That said, our college is planning a blended first semsetr, much like last year

    • telescoper Says:

      I’d be more than happy to be proved wrong. Fortunately Pfizer/BioNTech have increased their supply, which helps, but but without J&J or AstraZeneca I can’t see the required acceleration happening. And there’s still scope for other things to go wrong.

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