Universities should only offer face-to-face lessons for priority courses and students must not return to their family home if stricter measures become necessary amid local outbreaks, new government guidance says.
Institutions must have a plan in place that “assumes there is likely to be an increase in the number of cases, or an outbreak associated with their setting”, according to the Department for Education (DfE).
The updated guidance – published in the early hours of Thursday – comes as thousands of students prepare to return to campus for the start of term.
Universities should support students to socialise in Covid-secure environments – like campus bars and students’ unions – and they should identify “safer social activities” for them, the guidance says
It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that social gatherings of more than six people will be banned in England from Monday in a bid to tackle rising coronavirus cases.
Ahead of Freshers’ Week, universities have been told they should not allow students to have “private gatherings” in halls of residence which exceed the limits for gatherings in private households.
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 adds: “The reopening of campuses for academic year 2020 to 2021 will bring about a mass movement of students from across the UK and overseas, with the vast majority moving from other regions into student accommodation in the region in which their HE [higher education] provider is located.
“The creation of many new households brings with it a degree of risk, and we expect providers to take all reasonable actions to minimise this risk.”
But the advice also calls on institutions to “consider students’ desire to interact socially and creatively” with peers as part of their experience.
It says: “You could look to designate specific areas (‘creative spaces’) for students to socially and creatively interact beyond the usual teaching environment. These areas could include markings to allow for social distancing or the use of screens.”
The advice adds that universities should base their plans for local outbreaks on a four-tier system of restrictions.
Blended learning – a mix of face-to-face tuition and online lessons – has been recommended as the “default position”.
It says face coverings should be worn “where social distancing is difficult to maintain outside of teaching situations” – like corridors and communal areas.
Tier two – described as the “fallback” position – advises that universities should move to an increased level of online learning where possible.
Tier three calls for institutions only to retain face-to-face provision for priority courses and “in as limited number of situations as possible”.
At this stage, it says students should not return to their family home to “reduce the risk of transmitting the virus through travel”.
The last resort would be for university buildings to close to everyone except key workers and for the majority of provision to shift online.
It comes after government scientific advisers warned that significant outbreaks of coronavirus linked to universities are “highly likely” and they risk amplifying the transmission of the disease across the country.
A paper by the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), published on Friday, warned such outbreaks could coincide with Christmas and pose “a significant risk” to extended families.
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.”