Publication - Advice and guidance

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

Published: 10 Aug 2021

Advice from the group on preparations for the start of the 2021/22 academic year.

Published:
10 Aug 2021
Coronavirus (COVID-19) Advisory Sub-Group on Universities and Colleges: further advice on preparations for the start of the 2021/22 academic year

This advice note follows on from the discussions during Meeting 4 of the Expert Advisory Group (20 July 2021). Discussion at Meeting 5 (3 August 2021) provided further comments from the group in the context of the announcement by the First Minister that Scotland was set to move beyond level 0 on 9 August.

Update on position of epidemic and wider SG policies

The move to beyond level 0 removes most Covid-specific legal obligations. Where legal obligations have been removed, the guidance is clear that managing risk in settings significantly falls to the institutions.

The following baseline (protective) measures, provided for either by regulations or in guidance, will be expected to continue:

  • good hand hygiene and surface cleaning
  • continued promotion of good ventilation
  • requirement for face coverings in certain settings (e.g. public transport and indoor public places)
  • continued compliance with Test and Protect, including self-isolation when necessary
  • ongoing need for outbreak management capability, including active surveillance
  • encouraging a greater degree of working from home than pre‑COVID-19 where this is possible

In terms of the mitigations, a cautious approach is strongly recommended. There should be a collective responsibility to work towards supressing the virus, backed by effective communications from the colleges and universities and their associated student bodies, as well as support provided by Scottish Government and Public Health Scotland.

Although physical distancing is no longer mandated, steps should be taken to keep a reasonable distance from others and to avoid over-crowding in all indoor settings.

In-person learning at the start of term

Beyond level 0 allows for the resumption of in-person learning and research together with wider student activities. Modelling data suggest that a longer phasing of the return of students would have a relatively small impact on infection rates, compared to behaviours and events in the wider population. Taken in the context of the current state of the epidemic in Scotland, this means that any requirement to delay the resumption of in-person learning at the start of the academic year would be a disproportionate measure given the level of risk.

However, particularly at the start of the academic year, institutions are strongly recommended to implement a greater level of protective measures that take particular account of the profile of vaccination across the population, and concentrations of young people in student accommodation. Every contribution the sector can make will be helpful to control transmission and keep case rates low. This means that where online learning can continue without detriment, and where numbers meeting in person can be kept down, these would be helpful approaches.

Vaccinations

Universities and colleges are strongly advised to put in place clear communications and support, encouraging vaccination before the start of term, or as soon as possible thereafter. International students should be included within that messaging, and with the imminent arrival of large numbers of these students, a level of urgency is required.

Given the heterogeneity of vaccine uptake, ongoing tailored messaging and support will be needed. Signalling needs to be clear that some people are not vaccinated and there are still collective and individual risks.

Tied to large scale events such as Fresher’s Week, there is also a need for more public messaging to counter the unhelpful narratives about transmission by students. The focus should be on building messages around the high levels of compliance, and the remarkable achievements of many students despite COVID-19 over the last year (for example, the volunteering, the constructive role of student unions, the role that those on professional programmes played in directly working to support a range of settings etc).

Testing and self-isolation

Students should undertake LFD testing prior to returning to campus, and not return if they test positive, at least until a negative PCR test is obtained. Strong messaging for students regarding what to do when they have symptoms of Covid is also required. Anyone with symptoms should self-isolate immediately and book a PCR test. Ongoing use of asymptomatic testing should also take place, in line with the population as a whole. Rapid LFD tests are readily available and should be deployed twice a week. 

With regards to close contacts, as the general population are not routinely required to self-isolate if they are fully protected under vaccination, then this should be no different for students. Students and staff who are not fully protected by vaccination will be required to self-isolate as close contacts. There may also be circumstances when Incident Management Teams recommend self-isolation of contacts (whether or not they are vaccinated) for the purpose of outbreak control. 

Self-isolation on campus affords the opportunity to provide effective support to students, as well as making adherence more likely and mitigating the harms. For new students, friendship groups often develop in the early weeks of the academic year, and being absent in that period can lead to enduring isolation. Working with student bodies and Public Health Scotland, colleges and universities should ensure that suitable plans are in place to meet the needs of self-isolating students.

Ventilation

Ventilation should be a high priority in order for an inclusive re-opening of colleges and universities and their estates, i.e. where everyone, especially the most vulnerable, can participate in a safe environment. Evidence on the greater transmissibility of the Delta variant, necessitates ongoing caution with ventilation an important component of mitigation strategies. 

Institutions should give consideration to the allocation and type of usage of individual rooms and minimise the risk where possible. The use of CO2 monitors - particularly in situations where natural ventilation is limited and/or large numbers gather together for a period of time - is recommended for the monitoring of air quality.

There are benefits to having good ventilation for reasons which go beyond Covid, and therefore institutions should be encouraged to provide better ventilation where possible. Approaches also need to take account of implementation issues, including behavioural and psychosocial dimensions, in order to strengthen adherence and address any divisions arising from enhanced ventilation.

Future preparedness, self-assessment and good practice

In partnership with Public Health Scotland (PHS), Scottish Government has a clear role to play in supporting colleges and universities to make informed decisions about assessing the suitability of their approaches towards minimising the spread of Covid as well as building upon good practice. Working within the national guidance, localised solutions will be required (reflecting the nature of the estate and the distinct activities undertaken) in order to mitigate the four harms and meet the needs of a mixed profile of learners.

To establish and share good practice throughout the college and university sectors, institutions should be asked to work together to develop a self-assessment approach that they own and sign up to. This should address actions that (i) minimise risk of infection/illness, (ii) minimise outbreak spread, and (iii) minimise wider disruption. This approach will be strengthened if it can be developed as an institutional pledge, working in partnership with student bodies. Desktop exercises should also be undertaken to assess preparedness and identify gaps. Where an outbreak occurs, universities should be providing food and access to medical care.

Looking beyond the direct harms of COVID-19, colleges and universities should be ready to provide additional mental health and wellbeing support for students and staff, including through both formal (support workers) and informal (the creation of support groups amongst students) routes. Other approaches might include implementing simple and effective extension requests, quick catch-up support for missed classes and work, and an overall ethos of removing as much bureaucracy as possible from negotiating a period away from study without compromising progression. Much more flexibility of systems has been introduced over the last year and ongoing flexibility will be required to address the recovery needed from the impacts of the pandemic.