WHEN the pandemic forced schools, colleges and universities to rethink how they supported students and staff, many had to adapt quickly and creatively almost overnight.

“There is a lot of discussion about colleges ‘reopening’ one year on, but we never closed during the second lockdown from January 2021,” explains Stella McManus, Depute Principal of South Lanarkshire College. 

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“As an anchorage institution in our local community, we are very mindful of the fact we are a safe place for students and staff. From online learning to blended learning – on campus and virtually – and then through to having small groups of students back on campus, we have remained open to support our staff, students and the community.”

One of the biggest challenges was accessibility, says Ms McManus.

“We had to make sure our students could access online learning, so with funding support from the Scottish Government and Scottish Funding Council, we supplied laptops and wi-fi equipment to hundreds of students who didn’t have access to online technologies for their studies, and ran training sessions to help upskill those staff who required assistance with the move to digital learning,” she adds.

“Digital poverty is a huge issue – and we knew that for some students, learning at home would be very difficult for a variety of reasons.”

She explains: “Really, we had to move from a position of zero remote learning and teaching to delivering a comprehensive schedule within the space of 48 hours, and I cannot say often enough how amazing our staff have been to make that happen.

“All of our staff, not just those in teaching roles but business support, IT, information services, student services, human resources, finance and facilities teams – right across the whole college, they have been incredible. The main focus for everyone has been supporting all of our learners, of course, but what has been fantastic too has been the willingness of those staff with digital skills to support their colleagues, sharing good practice and assisting with training.”

South Lanarkshire College offers more than 150 courses to 5,000 students across three faculties: Business, Construction and Care, catering for everyone from senior phase school pupils and those with significant barriers to learning through to third year degree level students.  

“Similar to many colleges across Scotland, many of our students have a significant practical element to their course and we found that the longer lockdown goes on the more difficult it becomes to keep students motivated,” says Ms McManus.

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“We quickly developed a range of innovative ways to engage with those students – for example, construction staff would video themselves completing a particular task, which students could then download to watch and practice at home; or hair and beauty staff would demonstrate key skills online which students could then practise on willing family members.”

She adds: “This was a huge change to traditional ways of working for many staff, who had to think quickly and creatively to keep students engaged and motivated.”
The mental health of staff and students was a major concern for the college, which increased its range of support services.

“We ran mindfulness sessions, organised online yoga and circuits classes, Covid resilience training – it was all about helping people manage and deal with what was happening,” she says. “During the winter lockdown it was an even bigger challenge, with shorter days and poor weather, and the fact this was no longer new or novel, so people seemed to struggle more.”

Ms McManus says referrals to the college’s counselling service increased by 40 per cent during the second lockdown.

“We found that with other agencies, such as mental health organisations like CAMHS having such long waiting lists, students were coming back to us for support,” she adds. 

“Our staff and students have access to a 24/7 support service called TogetherAll, a collection of online tools and resources which helped to provide mental health support. Providing that kind of support online is much tougher than when students are on campus. When they are here, it is much easier to tell when someone is struggling. 

“During lockdown, people might have been facing family issues, potential domestic abuse, lost jobs or had financial concerns. This, added in with home schooling and other worries, can make being at home so much harder.”

The college worked with its Students Association to provide free soup to students attending the campus in the autumn term to ensure no student was worried about studying while hungry. This has been increased to a free soup and sandwich for all students returning to the campus in spring.

Strict health and safety procedures, including adherence to social distancing and mask-wearing, increased cleaning processes and regular inspections allowed small groups of students preparing to complete their courses in March and April back on campus to allow them to finish. “For many students, deferring completion to next year is not an option – they may need to complete their qualification to get a job,” adds Ms McManus. 

Looking ahead, Ms McManus says South Lanarkshire College “has learned a lot” from the last 12 months. “It is likely we will continue to offer a mix of online and on-campus learning in some courses, as we have realised for some people – for example, those with childcare issues – it can be easier,” she explains. 

“We are also very aware of the important part our college will play in supporting the post-Covid economic recovery. Helping people made redundant by Covid, for example, or supporting those in need of retraining or upskilling will be key alongside supporting existing students and helping them catch up on any lost learning time.”

  • To find out more about South Lanarkshire College and courses available in 2021 visit www.slc.ac.uk

 

This article appears as part of The Herald's The Future Of Education campaign, in association with South Lanarkshire College.

If you would like to become a partner in our Future of Education Series, contact Stephen McDevitt, Head of Digital and Branded Content campaign@heraldandtimes.co.uk