Phased return to in-person teaching at St Andrews

Monday 31 August 2020

In a letter to staff and students, Principal Professor Sally Mapstone outlined details of a phased approach to the introduction of in-person teaching when the new semester starts on 14 September.

Professor Sally Mapstone, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of St Andrews

Dear Colleagues and Students

I am writing to tell you that after very careful consideration over the past 48 hours, my senior team and I have asked our Schools to plan to undertake a phased approach to the provision of in-person teaching in St Andrews when our new semester begins on 14 September.

This will mean, initially, that only those classes categorised by Schools as essential for in-person teaching will take place in that form, with a gradual increase of in-person teaching across our Schools during the first seven weeks of the semester.

We have taken this action having consulted our staff and student leaders, in light of new evidence which suggests a larger number of students than was expected will be with us in St Andrews at the start of term, and in the current absence of a national asymptomatic testing regime, which would have added additional reassurance to the substantial steps we have already taken to ensure a safe return to teaching.

In-person teaching in the first two weeks of semester will now be limited to laboratory-based classes, classes in Medicine and some classes based on practical experiential learning.

All other currently scheduled in-person teaching, including all small group tutorials and seminars, will be delivered online to begin with.

In weeks 3 to 5, we will begin to introduce more small group tutorials and seminars where the physical presence in a classroom is preferred to support the educational experience. Students and staff will be consulted on the selection of these classes as we draw up a schedule for the gradual increase of in-person learning and teaching. Finally, after independent learning week, in week 7 we intend to deliver all small group tutorials, seminars and classes smaller than 35 students in person for those students who are in St Andrews.

We will of course only move through these stages of phasing if we are satisfied it is safe to do so.

More detailed information on the way this will affect students, staff and individual modules will be made available to you all as soon as possible. Please do not contact your Schools just now – they will be in touch with you about arrangements for our undergraduate and postgraduate students.

I am particularly concerned to ensure that students who find it challenging to engage with the remote component of dual delivery of teaching have all appropriate personal and technological support.

We recognise that, for many students, the ideal conditions for study and university experience are ensured by being resident in St Andrews. Here, there is access to our libraries and resources, dedicated study space, computing centres, wifi, IT services, sports facilities, student services, and the virtual support and activities offered by our Students’ Association. Being in St Andrews also allows you to acclimatise to our new safety regimes, and to engage with in-person teaching as we phase it in over the semester.

We have several reasons for making this policy adjustment. It has become apparent in the past few days that the number of students who will arrive to study with us in St Andrews is likely to be greater than anyone had forecast, partly because the late changes to the way A Level and Higher exam results were calculated have obliged us to admit significantly more entrants than would otherwise have been the case.

This has posed some challenges to timetabling and scheduling under the current physical distancing restrictions.

We now estimate that up to 9000 undergraduates and postgraduates plan to be in St Andrews during this first semester, whereas our early modelling had suggested a community of only 7000 would return or enroll.

It is also becoming evident that up to 1000 students, both entrants and returners, are unable to join us in person for visa or other reasons. This has implications for Semester 1 modules in both pedagogical and organisational terms, suggesting that we would do well to use the first few weeks of semester to take the measure of our module enrolments and to allow students to settle down before increasing our in-person teaching component.

I must stress that these are only estimates, and that we cannot confirm final numbers until our semester one snapshot has been taken in mid-term.

It is also now clear that a national programme of asymptomatic testing of students is unlikely to be in place in time for us in St Andrews, although we continue to lobby for, and offer support to, that proposed scheme.

I have listened carefully to our staff, and students, and our local community, and while there is a substantial desire to return to doing what we do best as a university, there is an understandable anxiety amongst some members of our teaching staff about the next few weeks.

I know that many tutors want to teach in-person, and many of our students want to learn that way, but the experience of all of us is diminished if apprehension, even amongst a minority, affects the classroom dynamic disproportionately, as I believe it could at present.

In all these circumstances therefore, it is prudent to begin our new semester with the phased approach to in-person teaching which I have described, subject to Scottish Government guidance.

For clarity, I remain utterly confident in our risk assessment procedures, developed jointly with our campus trade unions, and the very considerable steps we have taken over the summer to plan for the safe resumption of teaching and research in St Andrews.

The prevalence of Covid in Fife and more broadly in Scotland remains low, and we will maintain our robust, evidence-based approach to our planning for a safe return to work and study.

We say and we mean that the safety our students, staff and townspeople is our overriding priority. By adopting this progressive approach, we have an opportunity to demonstrate to each other that we can do this safely, in a compact founded on a clear understanding of our individual responsibilities. Phasing allows us to build community confidence.

I appreciate that with the start of teaching a fortnight away, this decision comes with little notice. It has been the repeating pattern of this pandemic, however, that there are necessarily fine margins to most decisions, and frequently, little time in which to make them.

We must always be prepared to act quickly and clearly, to adapt, and to be patient. Our teaching arrangements are hugely important, but we are also focusing extremely closely on safety beyond the classroom, and how we support and ensure the safe behaviour of our student community in town.

I ask you all to continue to work with me, and with your fellow students and staff, to maintain this university’s good record on managing the pandemic, but to do so in a way which allows us to return as quickly as possible to the traditional model of teaching, learning and the student experience at which St Andrews excels.

Sally Mapstone
Principal and Vice-Chancellor


Professor Sally Mapstone, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, in a letter to staff and students on 31 August 2020.

Published online by Corporate Office.

Category Covid community response

Related topics

Share this story