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Coronavirus transmission in universities: your questions answered


As universities return for the autumn term and welcome back students, DfE understand that this may raise some concern about the risks of transmission of coronavirus. Below DfE answer some key questions:

What should universities and students be doing to stay safe?

Universities have been working hard to make campuses as safe as possible, including enhanced cleaning measures, good ventilation, social distancing on campus and changes to timetables to stagger or reduce attendance on site. The Government has published guidance to help keep students and University staff safe.

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.

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 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.

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. It includes advice on what a provider should do in the event of a local lockdown, track and trace procedures, and reflects the latest social gathering restrictions that came into force on Monday, including the rule of six.

For more information on what some universities are doing to prepare, please see our blog here.

What about the rule of six – can students socialise in groups larger than 6 within and outside of their households?

If there are more than 6 students in a household, or they are in the same support bubble, these students can socialise with each other.

Formally organised sport is exempt from the requirement that the maximum is 6 participants, but informal activities must be limited to a group of 6 or one household. At all times, participants should comply with COVID-19 secure measures and limit social interaction outside of the sporting activity.

Venues following COVID-19 secure guidelines can host more than 6 people in total, but no one should visit in a group of greater than 6. When visiting somewhere such as a pub, shop, leisure venue, restaurant or place of worship, people should:

  • follow the limits on the number of other people they should meet with as a group (it will be illegal to be in group of more than 6 from outside of the same household).
  • avoid social interaction with anyone outside the group they are with.
  • provide their contact details to the organiser so they can be contacted if needed by NHS Test and Trace.

Societies and clubs are also still allowed, but students should follow the new rules on social gatherings, limiting groups to 6 participants.

What symptoms should students and staff be looking out for?

The Department for Education has worked closely with Public Health England (PHE) and NHS Test and Trace to ensure that we are doing all we can to minimise the potential risks of spread. A key part of this is recognising the correct symptoms.

We ask that anyone who feels unwell should get tested if:

  1. They develop one or more of the main coronavirus symptoms: a high temperature; a new, continuous cough; or the loss or change of their sense of taste or smell; or
  2. They are recommended to get tested by a healthcare provider (e.g. GP or nurse).

It is important to only get a test if you have coronavirus symptoms or have been asked to get tested. This will help make sure people who need a test can get one.

A student or staff member has coronavirus symptoms – what happens next?

Universities should ensure that staff and students are aware of all their options to access a test if one is required. In all cases, in addition to any local provision, tests can be booked online at Coronavirus (COVID-19): getting tested, or ordered by telephone via NHS 119 for those without access to the internet.

If a person is symptomatic, has tested positive (with or without symptoms), lives with someone who has symptoms or has tested positive, or has been identified as a contact by NHS Test and Trace, they should self-isolate immediately.

Self-isolating means staying in your home or place of residence and not going outside for any reason, including not travelling to a different place of residence. More information about this is available at isolation for residential educational settings.

Universities should ensure that students are safe and well looked after during their self-isolation period. The person who has tested positive must self-isolate for 10 days from when they first developed symptoms – or longer if they still have a high temperature. Other members of their household must continue to self-isolate for 14 days from symptom onset.

Public Health England health protection teams and local authorities will advise where testing as part of outbreak management is required. (Note: this will not always be required, and self-isolation is the way in which transmission is interrupted regardless of testing.)

Universities should also ensure that existing government guidance regarding contact tracing has been implemented. More workplace guidance on the Test and Trace programme is available here.

What does it mean if a student tests positive in university accommodation?

Students living in halls of residence or houses in multiple occupation (HMOs) who develop symptoms of coronavirus should self-isolate in their current accommodation. Universities and colleges should support this. Students should discuss this with their university or college, and with the manager of their halls if they are privately owned, or the landlord of their HMO.

If a resident of an HMO has coronavirus symptoms, all residents must isolate for 14 days, and follow the guidance available here.

When students are living in halls of residence where someone else has symptoms of coronavirus, their institution will discuss the situation with PHE’s local Health Protection Team, which will carry out a risk assessment and identify who is required to take part in whole household isolation based on how closely they have been living together.

Those living in private halls should inform their hall manager so they in turn can inform PHE’s local Health Protection Team. Depending on the circumstances, this would normally include those students living in the same flat or on the same floor who share cooking or washing facilities, or both. If halls accommodation is different from the format described above, for example longer corridors of single rooms, Universities will need to make decisions on the whole household group to self-isolate for 14 days on a case-by-case basis. This decision will be informed by the catering and social areas shared by groups of students, in consultation with PHE’s local Health Protection Team.

Institutions and building managers of private halls will need to design procedures with their staff to ensure that self-isolating students can receive the food and medicines they need for the duration of their isolation. This is especially important for disabled students.

Students in HMOs will need to discuss their circumstances with both their landlord and their institution, who should work in tandem to ensure that necessary support is in place.

In the case of a local community outbreak, or a rise in infection rates, what should universities do?

If a university is experiencing a rise in infection rates, or there is an increase in infection rates in the local community, a provider should work with their local Health Protection Teams and the Director of Public Health to determine the most effective measures that will help reduce transmission.

The National Institute for Health Protection (NIPH) will issue and regularly update guidance on how any additional restrictions imposed will apply to students moving between university and home. Unless told otherwise, in the event of additional restrictions being imposed locally during term, students should remain in their current accommodation and not return to the family home, which would increase the risk of transmitting the infection.

In the event of a possible outbreak on site, Universities should refer to the relevant Education Action Card that relates to managing possible outbreaks in education settings.

In certain instances, decision-making may be referred to the national level, and the government’s Local Action Committee command structure may recommend some level of restriction to Universities in such areas. These ‘tiers of restriction’ relating to teaching provision are outlined as follows:

  • Tier 1 (default position): 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 (fallback position): 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 (where stricter measures are needed): HE providers should increase the level of online learning to retain face-to-face provision for priority courses (for example, clinical and medical courses), and in as limited a number of situations as possible. Students should follow government guidance published as part of any additional restrictions applied locally, including where this says that students should remain in their current accommodation and not return their family home or other residential accommodation to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus through travel. In these circumstances, providers should support students to do so by keeping services for students, such as university libraries and catering facilities, open
  • Tier 4 (last resort): We expect the majority of provision to be online, with buildings open for essential workers only. This should include the continuation of essential research

More information about the tiers of restriction and what to do in the event of a local outbreak can be found here.

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