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Growing calls for the university to make in-person teaching more accessible

Whilst the long-awaited rise in delivery of in-person teaching this semester has been met with great relief and satisfaction by many, its tangible impacts in the wake of rising Omicron cases and the subsequent requirement for self-isolation, have undoubtedly caused a plethora of practical difficulties for others. 

Evidently, in-person teaching was high on the university’s agenda in the wake of the new semester, with Professor Colm Harmon insisting in his ‘welcome to Semester 2’ email to students that “we’ll continue to deliver as much in-person teaching as possible”.

Crucially, within this email, an acknowledgement was made for the possibility of self-isolation requirements and travel restrictions causing subsequent issues, affirming that the university “recognises that members of our community may need to self-isolate at some point during the upcoming semester”, assuring students that they will be continually “supported” in this time. 

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However, the Edinburgh University Students’ Association Disabled Students Campaign has sought to expose the reality of experiencing such support. They argue that students have not been receiving the high quality education and support during their studies that they are entitled to and that was promised to them.

As Disabled Students Officer Mia Davies expressed to The Student: “The issue isn’t with university policies about Covid and in-person teaching not being accommodating, but with a lack of follow-through.”

She also noted a concerning “disparity between what staff and students have been told to expect and do, and what is actually happening.” 

Instead a recurrent theme of students facing a pressing dilemma has been observed, in which, according to Mia Davies, “students taking courses without adequate online options are forced to miss out on important education if they’re self-isolating or put their health and safety at risk to attend in person teaching they don’t feel safe and comfortable with if they’re high-risk”.

They also raised concerns around adequate social distancing in certain classrooms, alongside a failure to acknowledge the difficulties students with neurodivergence or other conditions have faced when transitioning to more in-person teaching or with one-way systems. 

Beyond the Students’ Association’s declarations, many students themselves have reported facing difficulties, with one student currently in self-isolation telling The Student:

“Even though I won’t be penalised for not attending my tutorial class, I’m frustrated that I’ll miss any discussions made or feedback provided, especially when it’s completely out of my control”.

Likewise, other students criticised specific courses for being too slow in their upload of digital lecture recordings, alongside failing to provide digital tutorial sessions in the likelihood of forcible covid-related absences.

The crucial shift required, as the Disabled Students Campaign have continually advocated for, is towards that of greater accessibility for all students in all subject areas, accompanied by an urgent need for increased awareness of disabled students’ challenges.

Attempting to mitigate this on-going struggle proves challenging, with the Students’ Association working to improve the Accessible and Inclusive Learning Policy and engaging in constructive discussions with the university to greater ensure that disabled students are properly included in the university’s digital strategy.

Though the practical difficulties for university lecturers and course organisers navigating teaching in the current climate are acknowledged, the knock-on effect upon students’ educational access is of great concern, with the disparity of online teaching, digital accessibility and student support between different schools creating often-times insufficient and challenging outcomes for vulnerable or risk-averse students in particular.

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