Scientists warn universities against in-person teaching

The Independent Sage committee recommends 100% remote teaching for all but lab-based and practical degree courses

A group of senior scientists has set out recommendations on how universities can safely reopen campuses.

The Independent Sage committee – which shadows the government’s official Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage) and is chaired by the former government chief scientist Sir David King – has today published a statement advising the higher education sector on how to achieve a “Zero Covid University and a Covid-Safe Student Experience ahead of the new university terms across the UK in Sept/Oct 2020”.

Independent Sage said that universities should focus on remote learning and only offer face-to-face teaching for lab-based or practical degree courses (such as the performing arts).

The recommendation is a direct challenge to Universities UK (UUK)’s announcement in June that most students could expect “significant in-person teaching” on returning to university this autumn.

The committee also advised that the government should provide those studying from home with “local, Covid-safe study hubs” as well as grants for technology and wifi.

Students who needed to attend campus should be tested on or before arrival on campus, said Independent Sage, and there should be further regular testing of students and staff.

Freshers’ Week and the first two weeks’ of teaching should be online and socialising between students should be restricted “where feasible”. Face masks, social distancing of two metres, regular cleaning and residential bubbles should be the norm across campus.

The Independent Sage report says that universities pose “specific challenges” in terms of the pandemic. This is because universities lead to “the mass movement and mass migration of a million or more people around the world, at multiple points of the year”.

Added risk factors include the fact that, given their youth, most students will be asymptomatic if infected with Covid-19; students are keen to socialise and may be reluctant to get tested if it means going into quarantine; and that Covid-19 outbreaks could be mistaken for ‘Freshers’ Flu’.

The report also warns that universities and their students could be blamed for local lockdowns “leading to local resentment, conflict, weakened town/gown relations”.

Independent Sage has also issued a ‘social contract’ for a Covid-safe campus for all students and university staff to sign up to, and advice on best practice with regard to organisational communications.

Covid-19 outbreaks led to the closure of a number of US universities this week, including the University of North Carolina, Michigan State University and the University of Notre Dame.

You might also like: Over a third of students don’t feel safe returning to face-to-face teaching in September – NUS

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