Thousands of students across Grŵp Llandrillo Menai's twelve campuses have been returning to their classrooms over the past two weeks, after months of virtual isolation during lockdown.

Staff have noted an "air of optimism" from learners, as they adapt to the 'new normal' and navigate their way around the one-way systems. Their compliance with social distancing measures and face coverings has been extremely impressive.

The start of a new academic year at Grŵp Llandrillo Menai normally sees new recruits enjoying the annual Freshers' Fair at each campus, where they meet staff and other students, and speak to representatives from local and national businesses, clubs and charities, who help them make the most of their opportunities whilst at college.

Due to current circumstances, this was not possible. But, this year's cohort didn't miss out on the annual extravaganza, as the college group organised a raft of virtual Freshers' Fairs.

Throughout the Coronavirus emergency, Grŵp Llandrillo Menai has prioritised the welfare of staff and students. The organisation has gained confidence from their experiences of partially opening during the pandemic, but are planning for the next phase carefully and with caution, recognising that this will be the most challenging aspect of the return to work strategy.

Following Welsh Government guidance, the Grŵp has worked hard over the summer period to set up and implement a number of measures designed to keep everybody safe, and to ensure that it operates as a 'Covid secure' organisation in the months to come. These include one-way systems throughout the campuses; PPE for staff and students; the creation of contact groups or 'bubbles;' increased hygiene and cleaning measures, and setting up a blended learning framework, for use as and when appropriate, allowing some teaching to take place online if necessary.

Dafydd Evans, Chief Executive Officer of Grŵp Llandrillo Menai said,

The start of the new academic year has been as alien to us as the end of the last, but our commitment to provide our learners with a positive experience that enables them to gain the skills they need to achieve their potential continues to underpin our work.

When asked about her return to Coleg Menai, Psychology lecturer and A Level coordinator Viv Hoyland said,

Getting used to the new systems and completing all the paperwork online has been challenging, but every tutor has been working hard to make sure that all our A Level students have a positive experience. On a personal note, it feels good to be back and I'm really looking forward to seeing my second-year students again and meeting our new learners.

English lecturer and GCSE coordinator Alison Doran agreed,

It certainly is a bit of a culture shock getting used to the new normal! Meeting the AS group for induction this year has been, in itself, quite a challenge as we usually meet them face to face  - all of that has been done online this year, of course.

I'm looking forward to welcoming my new AS students into the classroom and getting them back into the swing of education. It has been a long time since they have had any real educational input, so I have modified my first half term to try and help them to get back up to speed. I'm also looking forward to seeing my A2 group again - I have been in touch with them throughout lockdown, so I'm hopeful that they will find it relatively easy to get back into it.

Looking ahead, Alison added,

At the back of my mind is the real possibility that we may, at some point, have to take a different approach and move to some distance learning. Over the summer, most of us have been developing back up plans for this, so that we don't have to have any periods of severe interruption to the scheme of learning.

However, GCSE will be taught completely online, at least for the first term. We have had a lot of professional development over the summer to introduce us to different methods of online teaching, but we haven't yet had a chance to put it into practice. We will be on a constant learning curve, but you can't stand still in this game and I hope that positive change to the way we think about curriculum, teaching and learning will come as a result.

Coleg Llandrillo HE Student Union President William Jones, who is studying a BA (Hons) in Tourism Management this year, said:

It's time to start an exciting new academic year after a safe and enjoyable time off with close family over the summer holidays. I am mostly looking forward to interacting with other students while sharing my passion and interests along the way, but am also very excited about attending both face to face and virtual online lectures that will benefit me in my future career path. As much as I complain about those 9am classes and the excessive workload, learning is an enjoyable experience in its own right.

Coleg Menai Student Union President Sam Lewis, who is studying Level 3 Mechanical Engineering and also an AS in Psychology, agreed:

It's a different pace to what we're used to with new rules due to the pandemic, but I'm excited to get back into it. I'm looking forward to being able to see my friends again in a controlled environment. I've missed the time spent with friends, studying together or just doing homework in the self-study periods.

Hundreds of young people have already enrolled on courses across the Grŵp's twelve campuses, with many courses full to capacity. However, there are still limited places available on some courses, so it may still be possible to find a course that is right for you.

For more information on available places, please visit the website at www.gllm.ac.uk or contact the course advice lines on 01492 542 338 for Coleg Llandrillo, 01758 701 385 for Coleg Meirion-Dwyfor, and 01248 383 333 for Coleg Menai.