University return ‘could spark Covid avalanche’

Universities in the UK are being urged to scrap plans for face-to-face teaching until Christmas in order to prevent a second wave of coronavirus.

Academics’ union UCU said more than a million students moving around the country was “a recipe for disaster”.

UCU leader Jo Grady said universities were not prepared and risked becoming the “care homes of the second wave”.

But university bosses say they have worked hard to plan for a safe return to all aspects of student life.

The Department for Education said universities were well prepared and it was important to reopen education when it was safe to do so.

And Prof Carl Heneghan, director of the Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine at the University of Oxford, told BBC Breakfast that “right now it is as safe as it ever has been” to go back to campuses.

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As many students return over the coming weeks, they will be expected to abide by new policies on the use of face coverings and social distancing protocols.

There will be safety partitions to keep them apart, as well as more cleaning and ventilation and smaller class sizes where face-to-face teaching takes place.

When national lockdown measures were brought in at the end of March, universities cancelled lectures, tutorials and some exams.

Many continued their lessons and lectures online however, and even held final exams remotely.

Over the summer, universities have been preparing for the return of their students, with most promising a mix of face-to-face and online learning – or “blended learning” – with students taught in extended “bubble” groups.

Few, if any, universities have taken the step of telling their students not to move into their accommodation, despite concerns halls of residence may help spread the virus.

Ms Grady said having tens of thousands of students heading into cities across the UK “risks doing untold damage to people’s health and exacerbating the worst public health crisis of our lifetimes”.

She told Breakfast the mass migration of a million students could prompt a “silent avalanche of infections”.

“There is far more of a risk than perhaps the general public has appreciated,” she said.

Second wave fears don’t reflect how life has changed

The language used by unions is very strong. There are plenty of infectious disease and public health experts who would not paint the threat in such extreme terms.

Whenever we hear about risks of a second wave or a sharp rise in cases we need to consider where we have come from.

The initial surge happened because the virus was spreading pretty much undetected for a period.

It was certainly more widespread than the UK and other countries realised in February and March.

By the time lockdown came there were an estimated 100,000 new infections a day in the UK.

Today we have over 1,000 confirmed infections a day, on average.

Of course some are going undetected, but it is clear the virus is currently under control.

As people circulate more – going back to work, schools and university – the likelihood is infections will rise.

But everyday life has completely transformed from what it was in February – there are many reasons why a second surge in infections like the first can, and should, be avoided.

Ms Grady said Manchester would see 100,000 students arriving, Birmingham 80,000, and Leicester 40,000.

“These are all cities that have had some form of local lockdown and have come out of it or are about to go into one,” she said.

And she warned the higher number of students expected at universities this year would make social distancing harder.

Prof Heneghan suggested universities put back face-to-face teaching until the end of the academic year in spring or summer 2021, by when the threat from coronavirus might have reduced.

“Can we do something over the summer, can we put a summer school on?” he asked, adding: “We need to maximise that experience.”

‘No regular testing’

The exams crisis over the summer meant many more students ultimately achieved the grades needed to get into university, after the government’s last-minute change of mind on school-assessed grades.

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Universities UK president Julia Buckingham said: “Many staff want to return to in-person teaching, research and other activities where it is safe and appropriate to do so.”

They are mindful of the benefits of in-person teaching and support for students’ well-being and development, she said.

A Department for Education spokesman said it was “confident that universities are well prepared for the return of students by taking measures such as introducing social distancing on campus, limiting travel requirement for classes and staggering teaching across extended days to reduce numbers on site”.

It added that guidance was “under constant review” and reflected the latest public health advice.

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  • National Union of Students (NUS)
  • Students
  • Coronavirus pandemic
  • Universities
  • Social distancing

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