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UK’s Department for Education issues guidelines to combat spread of COVID-19

University students in England could be confined to their halls of residence and barred from going to their family homes in the event of local coronavirus outbreaks, according to new guidance issued by the Department for Education.

The DfE’s guidelines call for universities to take a host of measures to combat the spread of the virus, but warns that institutions must “have the right plans in place to control and manage any local outbreaks” while also encouraging safe social interaction. University administrators were scrambling to understand how the new policies would affect plans they have already drawn up, with some students and staff having arrived on campus this week, and lectures started at some institutions.

Students with COVID-19 symptoms are told to “self-isolate in their current accommodation” such as halls of residence. All other residents in the same household must also isolate for 14 days, and be provided with support by their institution. The DfE said no funding would be provided to help meet the guidelines, and that additional costs would need to be met from existing budgets. The guidance recommends the use of disciplinary measures in the event of student non-compliance, as well as suggestions to combat the spread of the virus such as “reducing the sizes of casts in drama” and considering if “some tuition in certain subjects can be conducted outside”. The guidance – which only applies to higher education in England – includes a new, four-tier system on responding to outbreaks that would see in-person teaching curtailed from tier two, with only essential face-to-face teaching such as clinical and medical courses in tier three, and all teaching to be done remotely and campuses locked down at tier four.

Under tier three, the government can issue further local restrictions that students “should remain in their current accommodation and not return their family home or other residential accommodation to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus through travel”. In that case universities are told to keep open student services such as libraries and catering facilities.

The rules around student accommodation are likely to cause difficulty, with universities expected to group students into “households” that would encompass all those living on a floor or sharing a communal bathroom or kitchen – which could be as many as 30 students. But the guidelines also say that “private gatherings” including those within student households must still be restricted to a maximum of six people. In practice that is likely to limit the use of residential communal or dining areas to just six people at a time.

The guidelines also require universities to “consider students’ desire to interact socially and creatively with other students as part of their educational experience”. It suggests “creative spaces” be set up for students to “socially and creatively interact beyond the usual teaching environment”. Universities must also encourage students to safely mingle: “While [higher education] providers should communicate to students the importance of adopting safe behaviours generally, HE providers should also, where possible, support their students to socialise in Covid-secure environments.”

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