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Updated guidance for universities ahead of reopening

The Government has updated guidance to help universities reopen buildings and campuses this September while keeping students and staff safe.

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.

Universities have been working hard to make campuses as safe as possible, including through enhanced cleaning measures, good ventilation, social distancing on campus and changes to timetables to stagger or reduce attendance on site.

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 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:

The safety and wellbeing of university staff and students is our priority.

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.

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. We expect that, 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 (e.g. 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: We expect the majority of provision 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.

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.

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 Fresher’s 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.

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