English universities should stop in-person teaching and revert to online classes by early December to allow students to return home safely for Christmas, the government has said.
Guidance due to be issued by the Department for Education will say that students will be allowed to travel between 3 and 9 December to make sure families can be reunited over the festive period.
Universities will be expected to employ staggered departure dates during this “student travel window” and work with nearby institutions in order to manage the resulting pressure on transport infrastructure.
The hope is that the risk of transmission will be reduced as students will be heading home after the four-week COVID-19 lockdown.
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The government has promised to work closely with universities to establish mass testing capacity.
Coronavirus tests will be offered to as many students as possible before they depart, ministers say.
Universities in areas of high prevalence will be prioritised, the DfE said.
If students test positive for the virus before the travel window, they will have enough time to complete their self-isolation and get home for Christmas.
However, if a student opts to stay on campus later into December, they will need to remain in self-isolation in their accommodation for 10 days if they test positive for COVID-19.
Universities will be asked to offer extra help and support to students who remain on campus over Christmas, including affordable food.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan admitted students had experienced a “hellish time” and “very difficult” term since returning in September and October.
She told Sky News: “We made a commitment that they could be able to go home for Christmas in the safest way as possible for both their communities and families.
“We’ve now got this four-week period of national restrictions and, at the end of it students, will pose a much-reduced risk to their families, loved ones and communities.”
Ms Donelan added the government would be “complementing” the student travel window with testing.
“We’re targeting that testing in some of the most highest-risk areas and universities that are highest risk.
“And also looking at those student percentages who are most vulnerable, for example BAME students.
“That is one element of this strategy, you can never eliminate the risk – we’re in the midst of a pandemic – what we’re doing is trying to manage that risk, reduce it and give students the confidence to go home.”
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Ms Donelan said the government would be continuing to work with universities and test and trace teams on the return of students after the Christmas holidays.
But she dismissed suggestions students would have to prove they are COVID-negative if they want to return in the New Year.
Dr David Nabarro, a World Health Organisation special envoy on the global COVID-19 response, warned about the impact of students returning to universities after Christmas.
He told Sky News: “If there’s going to be a big return in January, all I’m going to say is, be careful, because that’s when the virus can really move around quickly.
“So please stick with the instructions that we continue to give out about physical distancing, faces masks, isolating whenever you’re sick, together with very good hygiene.”
Durham University is running a pilot project for rapid testing, which includes identifying those who are asymptomatic.
Several hundred staff and students at two Durham colleges have taken part in the voluntary scheme.
The pilot uses self-administered Lateral Flow Tests, which use a nose and throat swab and deliver results in 30 minutes.
Durham is exploring whether it is possible to roll out mass testing university-wide before Christmas.
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Jenny Harries said the “mass movement of students” presents a “really significant challenge” amid the pandemic.
“The measures announced today will help minimise that risk and help students get home to their families as safely as possible for Christmas,” she said.
“It is crucial that students follow the guidance in order to protect their families and the communities they return to.”
Universities UK said students and staff will “appreciate confirmation of the government’s end-of-term plans” in light of the “prolonged uncertainty they have faced this year”.
“With universities being asked to end in-person learning by December 9, some students will now miss out on timetabled placements, practical classes and other in-person teaching near the end of term,” a spokeswoman said.
“Universities will need to work with students and government to manage the challenges this creates.
“The government must now urgently turn its attention to working with the sector on plans to ensure students can safely resume their studies in person in January, supported by enhanced testing capability.”
Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the government’s plans were “riddled with holes” and “raised as many questions as they answer”.
“Allowing just a week for around one million students to travel across the country leaves little room for error,” she said.
“If the government instead told universities to move online now it would provide much more time to stagger the movement of students and better protect the health of staff, students and their wider communities.”
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