Scottish colleges are moving to blended learning as the Omicron variant fuels a fresh surge in Covid-19 cases.

Many have chosen to switch for the last week of term and are proactively planning to deliver a hybrid arrangement during the first fortnight of 2022.

City of Glasgow and Edinburgh colleges will have online learning from today until Wednesday, when the festive holiday starts. Other institutions are also minimising on-campus activity. 

Bosses stressed that arrangements would vary to meet local needs and students are being urged to check information regularly.

They said the latest plans were aimed at protecting individuals, minimising pressure on public transport and the NHS, and helping to control Covid’s spread.

It comes after First Minister Nicola Sturgeon urged the public to stay at home as much possible if they want to avoid having to self-isolate over Christmas. She also told a briefing last week that a “tsunami” of Omicron cases had started to hit the country.

READ MORE: Schools may need remote learning to 'protect education'

Bernadette Savage, City of Glasgow College Student President, acknowledged it was an “anxious” time for learners. But she said she believed the correct balance was being struck between boosting safety and providing access to “critical services”.

She added: “The college has assured our students that support is available for everyone who needs it, including coming on to campus in the new year and getting help with IT, counselling or financial matters. I think that’s the right balance of giving us access to critical services while asking us to stay at home in order to keep everyone safe and well.”

Shona Struthers, chief executive of Colleges Scotland, said: “Colleges have prepared very well for this model, and students can be assured that the quality of their college experience is being protected.

“The Scottish Government and colleges across the country are working closely together as the situation changes. 

“Colleges were already operating at a higher safety level than the rest of society through this autumn and winter, and we expect that to continue when learning and teaching resumes in January.”

HeraldScotland: Bernadette Savage said it would be an anxious time for students.Bernadette Savage said it would be an anxious time for students.

The changes come as mitigations and restrictions elsewhere in the education system are tightened.

Schools have been given new guidance that warns them to prepare for a range of scenarios, including the possibility of closures and a return to full remote learning. Groupings – which might cover a whole class in primary school and a whole year group or the senior phase at secondary level – are also being reintroduced for indoor spaces where practicable. 

In addition, and to minimise the need for building closures and remote learning, staff identified as close contacts of Covid cases have the option of volunteering to leave self-isolation. However, this will be subject to strict criteria, including provision of a negative PCR test result and confirmation that the individual’s second vaccination took place more than 14 days previously. 

Meanwhile, union leaders have said that reopening schools after the Christmas holidays should be delayed because of the Omicron variant.

READ MORE: Nicola Sturgeon confirms early school closures not planned as Omicron cases rise

Seamus Searson, general secretary of the Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association, said rising cases were already leading to staffing issues, with the problem expected to grow worse in the new year. Larry Flanagan, general secretary at the EIS teaching union, said ministers should be prepared to return schools to remote learning if necessary.

College leaders stressed that plans for blended learning would be subject to change. They also underlined the crucial importance of vaccination. 

Ms Struthers added: “Everyone over 18 in Scotland can now get first, second and booster doses of the vaccine, and getting a jag over the Christmas holidays will help us all get back to classes more quickly and safely in the new year. Students have also been able to access lateral flow tests at their college for many months and I’d urge anyone attending a campus to test regularly.”

Audrey Cumberford, chair of the College Principals’ Group and Principal of Edinburgh College, said: “Over the past 21 months colleges have become adept at delivering high quality learning and teaching remotely or in a hybrid model, with vulnerable students and practical subjects prioritised for access to our campus spaces. 

“We all now know the harms which come from Covid-19 go beyond the virus itself – mental health, social isolation and uncertainty have inevitably impacted students in Scotland. Extra resources and help is available at each college and I would really encourage students to access the services they need. We are absolutely here to support them.”

Further and Higher Education Minister Jamie Hepburn recently wrote to principals to ask whether existing Covid measures could be “stepped up” and “additional steps” taken that might limit in-person interaction or make necessary contacts safer.

HeraldScotland: Jamie Hepburn wrote to principals to ask if existing measures could be stepped up.Jamie Hepburn wrote to principals to ask if existing measures could be stepped up.

His letter adds: “This may include moving some additional in-person learning or other activities online, if it is possible to do so, reinforcing messaging on physical distancing, face coverings and hygiene measures, postponing or putting online any planned in-person events between now and the end of January (and asking student unions, clubs and associations to do the same). 

“I would also welcome an indication of what additional steps can be taken to improve on-campus ventilation, including a risk-based approach to the use of CO2 monitors.”

Paul Little, Principal of City of Glasgow College and Vice Chair of the College Principals’ Group, said further education institutions would be vital to Scotland’s recovery from Covid’s latest wave.

He added: “In order to keep the flow of qualified people coming into the workforce – including critical parts of the economy like health and social care, construction, and the maritime industry – the college sector has a crucial role to support our students to gain their qualifications.”