I last stood in front of parliament at the end of September to make a statement about supporting students through the global pandemic.
And today I want to provide a further update, specifically about supporting students to return home safely at the end of term for the festive holidays.
It’s important to set out why education in our colleges and universities is so important at this time as we live with Covid until a vaccine arrives; this is probably obvious to many but worth re-iterating in the context of balancing the harms caused by this virus.
Learning at college or university has a positive effect on students’ personal development, their wellbeing and life chances.
And it is crucial to our ability to develop trained professionals to support key services such as health and social care.
It is also important for our economic growth particularly as we recover from the negative impacts of both Covid and Brexit since it provides a pipeline of talent we need to continue to grow our country.
I absolutely appreciate how difficult it might be at times to keep sight of this in the midst of a global pandemic.
I also appreciate how difficult it has been for our students, and staff, to continue their learning this year.
The population as a whole has had to continuously adapt as Scotland responds to the crisis.
And students are no exception.
For some, this has been particularly tough given it may be their first time away from home, or they have come from other countries or had personal circumstances which exacerbated any of the challenges presented to them.
I remain grateful to those students who have adjusted and have continued to strive to achieve the education they rightly deserve against a backdrop of a global pandemic.
Again, I also want to thank the staff who have helped them achieve this.
After a tough start to the academic year many - but by no means all - students wish to go home at the end of term to see their family and friends.
Of the 240,000 students at Scottish universities at this time of year we are expecting between 60,000 and 80,000 to travel home at the end of term.
Some college students will also travel, although in smaller numbers.
That means around 160,000 to 180,000 won’t change their term-time address or household.
This will include international and UK students electing to stay here over the holiday period, students who commute from home, and care-experienced students for whom university is home.
This broad range in the estimates I just quoted reflects how challenging it is to predict student movement.
That said, we are expecting a substantial number of people wishing to travel. As with large numbers within the population as a whole potentially travelling, this poses a potential risk of virus transmission.
Our challenge is to look after the wellbeing of our students by enabling them to return home while keeping them and the rest of society safe. And to help them keep their loves ones and communities safe.
This is no easy task but we have considered in detail.
And, today, I am announcing the measures which will support students who choose to return home to do so safely.
First, student welfare is, of course, of paramount importance. All college and university students will receive early, clear advice on staying safe. Those who chose to stay in university accommodation over the holiday period will be well supported.
Secondly, there will be staggered and early departure irrespective of the level the institution is currently in.
Universities will be asked to make any necessary adjustments to scheduling to ensure that in-person teaching and assessment ends early enough to allow students time to get home at the end of term.
I see that Universities Scotland has highlighted the staggered dates for the end of in-person teaching at Scottish universities from late November to mid-December, so they are not expecting a great surge of movement.
Taking extra care is the third measure.
We will advise any student who wants to return home for the end of term to voluntarily reduce their social mixing for two weeks before going home. This means going out only for essential reasons and exercise.
This is the advice for all, but it is most vital to those students leaving from those areas where they are designated at higher levels of the strategic framework and those who are returning to households with vulnerable family members.
I am sure students will want to be sure they do all they can do, so they don’t take the virus home with them.
Testing is the fourth measure, and one that has been raised numerous times in this chamber.
Enabling easy access to testing for students with symptoms has already proved to be effective in controlling outbreaks.
Now we will be including Scottish students in a UK-wide initiative to test some asymptomatic students prior to the end of term.
Safe travel is the final measure in our plan and will see all college and university students travelling home given advice on how to do so safely.
This includes following public health advice on the use of public transport. Where there might be issues with local public transport capacity, we will work with institutions and Transport Scotland to enable safe travel.
We have also been working closely with the other administrations across the UK to enable students to return home safely wherever they live and study.
The UK and Welsh Governments have also issued their largely similar plans today.
We will continue to work across the UK in supporting students but we will do so with an emphasis on what is set out in our strategic framework.
We will also shortly publish a Q&A and more detailed guidance on the Scottish Government website which will set out more information on the steps I am announcing today.
I have no doubt that the majority of students will want to act responsibly and will follow the measures being set out.
Let me now turn to testing.
We recognise the particular concerns associated with students moving from one household to another for the winter break.
And so, as an additional layer in our work to support a safer return home, we will offer testing to students who are returning home.
To do this, we will make use of a new Covid testing technology, lateral flow devices, which can provide a result in half an hour.
These tests will work by detecting antigens from the virus that causes Covid-19.
Although these tests are not as sensitive as the gold-standard PCR tests we use for our main testing programme, they are able to identify a substantial proportion of cases, and appear to be more sensitive when detecting people with the highest viral load, so potentially those who could be most infectious.
In agreeing to set this in motion we have quickly taken advantage of the latest advances in technology and capacity.
We intend to offer testing on a voluntary basis to all students who are returning home, based on local and logistical circumstances.
That is, as previously indicted, between 60 and 80 thousand students but, to be clear, precise numbers will obviously depend on how many choose to go home and whether they choose take up the offer of a test.
We are currently planning on the basis that two tests will be necessary, 5 days apart, with PCR confirmation for positives, but that positon may change as public health professionals and clinicians take into account of any new evidence from the pilots in England which is being produced.
So, what does this actually mean for our students
It is important to be clear about what these tests can and cannot do.
We will be using them to test students to try to find Covid cases – so that these students are asked to isolate so they don’t transmit the disease further, and so that their close contacts are asked to isolate so that they too don’t transmit the disease on if they have become infected.
These tests provide a point in time assessment of whether a person has Covid – so are useful for finding cases.
But, they cannot tell us with certainty that someone is Covid-free, they cannot tell us whether or not a person is incubating the disease.
We are asking students in Scotland to get tested, and to isolate if positive, or a close contact, to help us reduce transmission.
This means that it will be vital for students to continue to follow all of the other measures in place to reduce transmission risks, even if they test negative.
Guidance for students on what tests results mean and the support available to them will be provided.
The testing will be delivered through partnership with Scottish Universities, and collaborating with the wider UK Government testing programme.
We are all aware of the challenges surrounding establishing this system in such a short time scale but we are all committed to working in partnership to deliver this for our students.
Reflection on Semester 1 and looking towards Semester 2
Supporting students to return home is only part of the equation. What happens in semester 2 is the other key part.
While colleges and universities have supported students in their learning to-date it has been far from a normal experience.
This was not helped by the outbreaks of Covid-19 within student accommodation at the start of term.
During this period - working extensively with universities, NUS and other partners - processes were put in place to support student wellbeing.
Work was also undertaken to communicate key messages including explanations on how the current restrictions on social gatherings apply to students living away from home.
Infection rates in student accommodation has now substantially reduced with all known positive cases among university students since the start of term estimated to be around 1.5%.
Data from November 5th shows that new cases amongst students identified each day by universities (based on an average of the previous 7 days) accounted for approximately 2% of the national total over the same period.
While we no longer have the same level of infections among students we saw at the start of term, we must learn from that experience.
There are many challenges in determining the approach to balancing the four harms to support students’ education in semester 2.
This is set within the context of considerable uncertainty around virus levels at that point and consideration of our strategic framework being in place nationally as well.
We are reflecting on this as well as the lessons from semester 1 as we consider further with university, unions, NUS and public health experts our next steps.
It is clear, however, that the return after the New Year will not be normal and we will work with the sector to offer as much clarity for students and staff as we can in the coming weeks.
Covid-19 is a challenge for all of us, our students included.
We have all worked hard to support students in gaining an education this term and like everyone else we have learnt and adapted as we have progressed.
My message to students is ‘thank you for all your efforts and please keep doing all you can to keep yourself and others safe if you are making plans to going home’.
Finally, I want to re-iterate my thanks to all the staff and students the length and breadth of the country. I know it’s tough but together we can get through this.
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