Updated guidance from government ahead of universities reopening

Face-to-face tuition ‘safe’ if COVID-secure plans in place, says new guidance

Government guidance to help universities make campuses as safe as possible has been updated ahead of students starting the new term.

The Department for Education has updated its guidance in line with the latest public health advice from SAGE, which was clear that there is no scientific basis that face-to-face teaching is unsafe as long as COVID-secure plans are in place. The updated guidance aims to support leaders minimise COVID-19 risk while ensuring students experience university life. It follows latest SAGE advice confirming a mix of face-to-face teaching and online learning can be conducted safely in well-managed environments

The government already recommends face coverings are worn in all communal and enclosed spaces. Universities can choose to adopt the use of face coverings as part of their wider COVID-secure measures, particularly where social distancing cannot be maintained or it is difficult to provide good ventilation.

The SAGE group has made clear that teaching in person is important and fully online provision would have an impact on students’ mental health

The updated guidance includes advice on what a provider should do in the event of a local lockdown, track and trace procedures, the creation of new households in student accommodation and reflects the latest social gathering restrictions coming into force on Monday.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “Universities have been making a mammoth effort to safely open campuses and buildings to students this autumn, and the government has worked closely with them to ensure they are well prepared for the return of students.

“The updated guidance includes the recent SAGE advice and will help university leaders access the information they need, and assist their existing plans to keep students and staff as safe as possible.”

‘Confusing, expensive and silly suggestions’

However, UCU general secretary Jo Grady comments: “Any country with an infection rate anywhere near that of our young people would be removed from the safe travel list. We cannot see why the government is insisting young people move around the country and engage in unnecessary face-to-face interactions. We hope the panel today will share our concerns and back moving more learning online until these worrying rates come down.

We are unimpressed with the latest government guidance for English universities which contains confusing, expensive and, at times, silly suggestions – UCU general secretary Jo Grady

“We are unimpressed with the latest government guidance for English universities which contains confusing, expensive and, at times, silly suggestions. Moving learning online would remove the need for universities to consider teaching outside or opening doors and windows in the winter months, as the guidance suggests.”

UCU will later today ask deputy chief medical officer Jenny Harries if she thinks that colleges and universities should move their learning online in an effort to combat the spread of Covid-19. The union argues that universities’ default position should be online learning to avoid risking “a major health crisis”.

Emma Hardy, shadow universities minister, said the government had “repeatedly failed to get a grip on testing or give students, staff, and communities the support they need as universities reopen”. She questioned why the guidance had “arrived so late, just as students are set to return”.

Impact of fully online learning

According to the DfE, the SAGE group has made clear that teaching in person is important and fully online provision would have an impact on students’ mental health. Where practical work occurs in close contact like medicine, dentistry and performing arts, universities should follow advice for the relevant professional environment.

In areas subject to local lockdown, four tiers of restrictions have been set out for education settings:

Tier 1
HE providers are expected to provide blended learning, with face-to-face tuition, following the provisions of this guidance, and public health guidance, including, for example, the appropriate use of face coverings.

Tier 2
HE providers should move to an increased level of online learning where possible. Providers should prioritise the continuation of face-to-face provision based on their own risk assessment. In the majority of cases, this will be for those courses where it is most beneficial (for example clinical or practical learning and research).

Tier 3
HE providers should increase the level of online learning to retain face to face provision for priority courses (eg clinical and medical courses), and in as limited number of situations as possible. Students should follow government advice to remain in their current accommodation to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus through travel, and providers should support this by keeping services like university libraries and catering open.

Tier 4
The majority of provision is to be online, with buildings open for essential workers only. This should include the continuation of essential research.

In student accommodation, universities are expected to identify ‘households’ to manage routine contact as safely as possible. These households in halls of residence would be students living in the same flat or on the same floor who share a kitchen or bathroom.

Action plan for local outbreaks

The guidance also sets out that universities should have strong test and trace measures in place and plans for local outbreaks, whether in student accommodation or in certain academic departments, so that action can be taken quickly. Public Health England may recommend additional measures in the event of a local outbreak and across all sectors.

The guidance forms one part of the wider government advice relevant to higher education, and is complemented by guidance on track and trace and for landlords on renting and coronavirus.

Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “The safety of students, staff and the wider community remains the priority for universities and we welcome this additional guidance to support the significant safety measures universities have already introduced and the detailed planning undertaken across the higher education sector. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic universities have followed – at a minimum – official government and public health advice and today’s government update provides a framework for universities to operate in a way that meets the needs and circumstances of their communities.

“Universities have been working hard over many months, drawing on expertise from within the sector, external advice, working with government and local partners, and in consultation with student and staff groups, to do everything possible to put in place COVID-secure safety measures for this academic year. While the wider situation with the virus across the country clearly remains uncertain and fast-moving, universities will continue to work closely with national and local health bodies to ensure robust and adaptable measures for the new term and beyond.

“Life across all of society will be different this autumn, with university life no exception, with differences to previous years. However, students can look forward to a high-quality, rewarding and enjoyable experience at university this academic year.”

Students urged to act responsibly

The universities minister has also urged students, along with the wider public, to act responsibly as they return to campus. It follows warnings – most recently raised by the prime minister – for young people to follow social distancing rules, and reports that some companies have been advertising mass social freshers’ events.

New restrictions coming into force on Monday mean social gatherings of more than six people will be against the law both indoors and outdoors, including at places like pubs and restaurants.

Universities can still welcome students back later this month and plans for teaching will not be impacted. All social activities will need to comply with the latest measures, though students will still be able to socialise with the same ‘household’ they form in their student accommodation.

Universities minister Michelle Donelan said: “Health advice only works if we all follow it. I urge students, just like the wider public, to do their bit and act responsibly to ensure campuses can remain open for them to use and enjoy.

“As a government, we have clearly set out the consequences for anyone who risks spreading the virus, whether that’s through illicit social gatherings or organising large events. The police and local authorities will take serious action where it is necessary.”

The government has launched a campaign to help students understand the latest advice and guidance to keep them as safe as possible. Activity includes local advertisements, partnerships with social media platforms popular with students, working with universities and providing a toolkit to support universities to deliver messaging as part of their own communications directly to their students.

Civic duty responsibility

A Russell Group spokesperson commented: “We welcome the updated guidance from the DfE, which recognises the work our universities have been doing to ensure campuses are ready and safe for the new academic year. The steps taken by universities will help to reduce transmission on campus and in the wider community, so students will be able benefit from a blend of high quality online and face-to-face teaching delivered in safe and effective way.

“Our members are also working with students to remind them of their duty to the wider community and the importance of following government guidance, with many putting in place new or enhanced agreements on responsible behaviour.

“In addition to the steps being taken by our universities, we would urge the government to ensure that sufficient local testing capacity is in place. Our universities will continue to work with local authorities to set up a coordinated approach so transmission risks are minimised and any outbreaks can be managed appropriately.”


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