Universities asked to stagger returns over five weeks to ensure safety of students and staff 

Students will be asked to stagger their return to universities after Christmas to help protect those around them and reduce transmission of Covid-19, the Government has announced today (2 December).

New guidance published by the Department for Education will set out how higher education providers should manage student returns over a five-week period according to the following:

  • From 4 - 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. 
  • The remaining courses should be offered online from the beginning of term so students can continue their studies from home. 
  • From 25 January, all other students should start to return gradually over a two-week period, and by 7 February all students are expected to have returned.  

All students should be offered Covid tests when they return to university to help identify and isolate those who are asymptomatic but could spread the virus. All universities will be offered testing facilities to give students two lateral flow tests, three days apart, with results turned around within an hour to help control the spread of the virus.  

These measures will be crucial to manage returns carefully and protect students, staff and local communities while reducing disruption to education.

The Government has also announced a one-off fund of up to £20 million to help students most in need of support in these exceptional circumstances.

Michelle Donelan 100x100Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said:     

“The health and wellbeing of students, staff and local communities is always our primary concern and this plan will enable a safer return for all students. But we must do this in a way which minimises the risk of transmission. 

“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. 

“It is so important students have the support they need to continue their education, which is why we are providing up to £20m funding for those facing hardship in these exceptional times.”

Matthew Hancock 100x100Health Secretary Matt Hancock said: 

“We must use every tool at our disposal to stop the spread of the virus and help reduce the risks around students travelling back home this Christmas. Using new technology and the additional capacity we have built, we are now able to extend our testing offer to help manage this risk, by identifying those showing no symptoms who can infect people unknowingly and stop them from passing the virus on to others as they move around the country.  

“I encourage all students to play their part in bringing this virus under control by getting tested twice, and by following the restrictions in place when travelling to and from University this term.” 

Tim Bradshaw 100x100Dr Tim Bradshaw, Chief Executive of the Russell Group said:

“It’s helpful for universities and students to have clarity on the Government’s plan for managing the return of students in January. Our members will now be working hard to implement it and make students aware.

“Our priority throughout this period continues to be staff and student safety and ensuring students face as little disruption as possible to their ongoing studies and professional qualification requirements.

“Government has rightly said that campus facilities – study spaces, libraries and labs – should remain open for students who don’t have suitable learning spaces at home, and those staying on campuses over the winter break, including international students, even if they are not attending in-person lessons in January. With the help of hardworking staff, universities will do everything they can to ensure the best possible learning experience for all students, be that in-person or online.”

Universities UK said: 

“Today’s announcement demonstrates the government’s confidence that universities can safely welcome students back to campuses for blended teaching, learning and support in the new year.

“While January will undoubtedly be challenging for the country, a 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. The guidance also recognises the importance of libraries and study spaces being available for those who need them.  

“We welcome the government’s commitment to continued asymptomatic testing for university students in the new year, following the successful roll-out of pilots across the country this term. The high demand for tests from students shows they understand the important role testing can play in keeping themselves and their communities safe, as well as supporting students to receive the best possible university experience under the circumstances.

“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.”

Universities should tailor plans to best suit the needs of their own student population. They should also consider prioritising those who may need to return to campus earlier for other reasons such as students who do not have access to appropriate accommodation or study space.     

The Government expects universities to maintain the quality, quantity and accessibility of their tuition. The Office for Students will be monitoring universities to ensure this happens. 

The plans for the spring term follow those enabling students to return home for the Christmas break, with 126 universities offering mass testing for students before they leave in the ‘travel window’ between 3 – 9 December.  

Mass testing will help break transmission among students especially when they may be asymptomatic.  Students should restrict contact in the three days between their tests and if they receive a positive test they will have to self-isolate in their accommodation.      

Universities should continue to provide additional support to students who are isolating to ensure they can access food and medical supplies if needed, along with mental health support.     

Where available, students who have spent the winter break in Tier 3 areas where mass community testing is on offer should take a test before travelling back to university if possible.  

Along with developments in mass testing using new rapid ‘lateral flow’ tests and other advances in medical technologies and protective measures, this should allow for a more normal spring term and a better experience for students and staff.    

Before travelling students are advised to book travel in advance, avoid busy times and routes and check their journey to avoid disruptions. If driving only travel with members of your household or support bubble, and follow safer travel advice guidelines. On public transport it is important that travellers wear a face covering unless exempt, wash or sanitise hands regularly, use contactless payment and keep 2m distance where possible.   

In line with wider government guidance, students who feel they need to return earlier than the guidance suggests due to exceptional circumstances (e.g. a lack of study space or for mental health reasons) can do so.  

Labour calls for staggered return of students to universities in January to prevent spike in cases 

Labour had (30 Nov) called on Ministers to set out plans to stagger the return of students to universities in January or risk a repeat of the spikes in infections seen in September:

Labour’s plan would mean students on placements, or whose face-to-face teaching is essential, return to campus first with other students following later in the term.

Labour’s intervention comes ahead of the “student travel window” which could mean millions of students heading home for Christmas over the next week. The Government has provided no guidance for universities or students on how to manage the return to campus in January.

The Government’s failing test, track and trace system was unable to deal with the mass movement of students to universities in late September which led to a spike in coronavirus infections, with university towns seeing Covid rates 40% higher than the rest of the UK. This meant thousands of students were forced to isolate in university accommodation and multiple occupancy houses, causing huge stress and some students to leave their courses altogether.

To prevent a repeat of this chaos, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister, Emma Hardy MP has called on Minister Michelle Donelan to urgently set out plans for January, giving universities and students time to prepare for a safe return to in-person teaching.

To manage the return of students, Labour is calling on the Government to:

  • Work with universities to stagger the return of students, preventing mass migration of students in a short timeframe which could cause spikes in infection rates
  • Set out plans for the arrival of international students in January, ensuring they are supported through quarantine periods.

Emma Hardy 100x100Emma Hardy MP, Labour’s Shadow Universities Minister, said:

“Ministers are again passing the buck to universities and expecting them to come up with answers where the Government has none.

“Students are about to leave universities for Christmas holidays without knowing when or how they will go back. Guidance on their safe return must be published without delay to give universities time to put processes in place.

“The Government should adopt Labour’s call to stagger their return and work with universities to deliver this.”

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