England to stagger students’ post-Christmas return over five weeks

Students to be offered Covid tests when they arrive on campus

December 2, 2020
Covid test
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English universities have been told by the Westminster government to stagger the return of students to campuses after Christmas over five weeks, in a bid to limit the spread of Covid-19.

Students will also be offered Covid tests on their return to university, under guidance for the next term published on 2 December.

The Department for Education said that, from 4 to 18 January, medical students, those on placements, or practical courses “with a need for in-person teaching” should return in line with their planned start dates. Remaining courses should be offered online, with students studying from home.

From 25 January, all other students should return gradually over a two-week period, according to the guidance.

The government said that all universities would be offered quick-turnaround Covid testing facilities, with all students being offered two tests, three days apart, in a bid to identify and isolate asymptomatic cases of the virus.

Ministers also announced a £20 million fund to support students “most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances”.

The plans were announced as mass testing of students gets under way to facilitate students’ return home for Christmas, and comes after students’ arrival on campuses at the start of this term led to spikes in Covid cases on many campuses. Teaching is moving online for the last weeks before Christmas.

Michelle Donelan, the universities minister, said that the plan “minimises the risk of transmission” of Covid-19 at the start of the spring term.

“I know students have had to make sacrifices this year and have faced a number of challenges, but this staggered return will help to protect students, staff and communities,” she said.

The government guidance says that universities should also consider prioritising the return to campus of students who do not have access to appropriate accommodation or study space.

Students who are returning are urged to avoid public transport where possible, and avoid car sharing with anyone outside their household or support bubble.

Those spending the winter break in Tier 3 areas where mass community testing is available should take a test before returning to campus if possible, the guidance adds.

A Universities UK spokeswoman said that the staggered approach “will allow enhanced testing capacity to be maximised so that Covid-safe in-person teaching can begin at the start of term for some students, and shortly after for others”.

“Universities now need further clarity from the government on how they will be supported to deliver testing in the new year, given the significant resource requirements associated with the pilots so far,” she added.

The University and College Union described the government guidance as a U-turn on ministers’ previous insistence that continuing face-to-face teaching should be a priority during the pandemic. Online teaching, it said, would be “the default until at least 8 February”.

Jo Grady, the union’s general secretary, said that the guidance was “a step forward, but plans for next term still pose a risk to staff and student safety”.

“We need to see an effective test, trace and isolate programme that links university and public testing systems. This must include coordinating student travel between institutions, and risk assessments on any return to campus,” she said. “We need online learning to remain the default position for universities until these issues are fixed, otherwise we risk further spikes in virus transmission.”


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