Coronavirus (COVID-19) Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges: advice note for winter preparations for the 2021/22 academic year

Advice note from the group ahead of winter for the 2021/22 academic year.

Background and context

This advice note is to support universities and colleges in their planning for the winter period and semester two in their approach towards COVID-19 risk-reduction and management. It is in the context of the Scottish Government’s defined strategic intent to ‘suppress the virus to a level consistent with alleviating its harms while we recover and rebuild for a better future'.

With the move into ‘beyond level 0’, most Covid-specific legal obligations have been removed. There is an ongoing call from Scottish Government for collective responsibility across all sectors in working towards supressing the virus. In the run-up to the start of the 2021-22 academic year, a cautious approach was recommended within the further education/higher education (FE/HE) sector, where institutions were strongly encouraged, where possible, to go further than the required baseline mitigations in order to restrict the spread of the virus. Universities and colleges have responded positively to this call, including through voluntary retention of some physical distancing and numerical caps on students in class at any one time. Such measures have been supported by effective communications from the colleges and universities along with their associated student bodies, as well as supported by Scottish Government and Public Health Scotland.

Coronavirus remains a significant threat to public health across Scotland where the current level of infection is high. Case rates have been levelling off during the past few weeks, although there has been a slight increase in cases last week where 17,677 cases were reported. Death rates are decreasing and hospitalisation rates are fluctuating, but further data is required to establish an accurate projection. Around 80% of 17-21 year olds have had their first vaccine and antibody rates for 16-25 year olds are 78% and continuing to increase. A recent Public Health Scotland analysis of postcode data for halls of residence has shown that approximately 1% of all cases could be attributed to that population compared to the much greater figure from last year (some weeks it may have been as high as a third), where accommodation and socialising were considered to be key factors in the high number of infections. It is likely that the vaccine programme has been a major contributory factor for this year’s lower figure. There is not yet any indication of a waning effect of vaccine protection in the main student age cohorts, but this is being monitored.

Following a letter from the Cabinet Secretary on 20 August, FE/HE institutions submitted their plans for outbreak management. Those plans were found to be well-advanced in terms of preparation for the academic year and supported by regular contact with local public health teams, with detailed arrangements in place to protect staff and students and to ensure Covid outbreaks are effectively managed.

Preparation for the Christmas break

Communication remains a key element in the ongoing challenge of suppressing the virus. Key messages should be regularly communicated reinforcing general, Covid-safe behaviours around campus and in accommodation, e.g. good ventilation, frequent hand washing and use of face coverings. Testing remains key. Students and staff should be reminded to seek a PCR test if they have symptoms, and colleges and universities should support those self-isolating. The importance of regular asymptomatic testing should also be emphasised in regular communications. Institutions should work with NUS and other student representative bodies to develop peer-led locally targeted and tailored mass and social media interventions to educate, persuade and enable students and staff to comply with the mitigations. Within communications messaging, the successful high levels of student compliance over the course of the pandemic should be highlighted, as this will help reinforce positive behaviours and the establishment of social norms. While tailoring communication to the student audience is important, the broad alignment with community-based messaging on compliance should also be taken into account.

Although there are no student specific vaccination uptake figures, anecdotal evidence from some institutions suggest that vaccination uptake may be slightly higher amongst students (particularly in the younger age cohorts) than in the general population. However, with the prospect of students having an increasing number of contacts particularly during the second term when mitigations could potentially be further eased by institutions, it is important that more students continue to be vaccinated. The Office for National Statistics have published comparative data from England.

Institutions have worked in partnership with their local health board(s) since the start of the academic year to encourage student vaccine uptake. Institutions have strongly pushed messaging around the importance of being fully vaccinated before arrival on campus. Each institution has a single point of contact with the relevant health board(s) and has worked to put in place arrangements for vaccinating students, in line with local need. Where appropriate, these arrangements have included ‘pop up’ vaccination clinics on campus. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Care also confirmed on 11 June that international students would be able to get vaccinated as part of Scotland’s vaccine programme. Institution staff have also been able to use local and on-campus vaccination clinics.

Scotland’s Covid vaccine booster programme is now underway and some students and staff will be eligible as they fall into the current JCVI priority vaccination groups. This may be extended in future to younger age groups, and if that occurs then institutions and health boards will be able to work in partnership again to put in place local arrangements for student boosters as necessary. The sector should continue to push strong vaccination messaging to students, including through student newsletters, social media and on campus signage and signposting to local or on-campus vaccination clinics which will be able to adapt this to the booster programme as more students become eligible. This messaging should also be used to encourage students and staff uptake of the flu vaccine throughout the winter months.

Testing before travelling within the UK is an important measure to reduce the risk of importing the virus to different parts of the country and all students returning home at Christmas should do an LFD test three days before and on the day of travel. LFDs are effective at detecting a high viral load in an individual, and registering an appropriate positive result. These are people who are thought to be the most infectious. The reason for days three and zero is to enhance detection by picking up any cases which were not detected during the first test and to catch any new infections. PCR testing is the gold standard, however to help protect the Winter testing capacity, it is best used for those who are symptomatic. When students are away they should continue to test regularly (twice per week) using locally available test pick-up points, such as pharmacies, etc. All travelling students should be strongly encouraged to take these tests and FE/HE institutions, student bodies, Scottish Government and Public Health Scotland all have a part to play in this. Information on how to access the tests should be clearly communicated with an emphasis on highlighting to asymptomatic students the importance of getting tested.

Preparation for semester two

The same requirements for testing described above also apply to students returning for their second term. On return to term time accommodation, a LFD test should be taken three days before travelling and on the day of travel. Once back in term-time accommodation, regular testing should continue using LFD Collect (as an alternative form of asymptomatic testing, Edinburgh University is piloting its own Covid testing scheme - TestEd). Institutions along with their respective student bodies should be sending out strong messaging around testing requirements with advice on how students can access the required testing kits in and around campus.

For most institutions, halls of residence are already at or approaching full capacity. As such, even though this subgroup has previously identified these settings as high risk, any increases in student numbers would be relatively small and therefore unlikely to have a significant negative impact on the spread of the virus. Increases in students on campus would likely be in settings that this subgroup has identified as ‘low risk’, such as classrooms, labs, lecture theatres, etc. HE institutions have intimated that they intend to progressively remove remaining voluntary restrictions, such as numerical caps on class sizes and physical distancing, leading to increased in-person learning. Members noted that for many students, more in-person learning will be key to mitigate immediate and longer term harms (particularly on learning progression) in the coming year and for the remainder of their time in FH/HE. However, the resulting rise in the number of contacts across campuses necessitates that HE/FE institutions ensure the effectiveness of other mitigations in order to supress the virus. If contacts significantly increase, this could contribute to rising cases and this is a concern particularly during the winter when the national picture is likely to be challenging. Early warning signs of rising infection levels in areas with large numbers of students may be able to be picked up in waste water surveillance and these data should be regularly reviewed along with other indicators. It may be appropriate to identify a ‘checkpoint’ early in semester two to review the situation and consider any changes needed to guidance.

Any changes to voluntary restrictions need to be effectively communicated, along with reassurance to students and staff regarding the retention of a safe learning environment. Students should feel that by contributing to the current high levels of compliance, they are helping to ensure that increased in-person learning and other face to face activities can be maintained. The involvement of staff, students and specialist expertise in developing these communications is advised, as is the value of tailoring communications to different groups, including those recognised as being at higher risk. This will be particularly important in cases where institutions are returning to in-person formal assessments. Institutions should also ensure that students newly arriving in January should be provided with the guidance usually provided at the start of the academic year.

Good ventilation is a key mitigation and should there be a rise in foot-fall on campus during term two its level of importance as a key mitigation will be enhanced. Providing adequate ventilation is set to become more challenging in the winter months. The SG Short-Life Working Group on Ventilation is already considering what, if any, further measures could be recommended for good ventilation in universities and colleges, so we will not offer recommendations on ventilation within this advice note.

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