Great news for third-level college students as almost all facilities return to campus under the proposals being brought to the Government. Under the new plans, over 200,000 students are set to be greeted by in-person lectures, reopened libraries and bars and reconvened student societies.
Minister for Higher Education, Simon Harris will today seek approval from Cabinet for the return of almost all services, as part of the reopening plan. Once approved, students can enjoy some normality with the return of large-scale lectures – coinciding with public health guidelines – and other services.
Laboratory teachings, tutorials, workshops, smaller lectures, research, workplaces, libraries, canteens, sports facilities, clubs and societies and bars are all part of the plans. All reopening services will still adhere to public health guidelines while operating, including social distancing and maximum attendance protocols.
By the time of reopening, the sector is expected to have built a robust system of protection in time for the academic year. Mr Harris is expected to share such details with Cabinet, as well as plans for the expected vaccination programme for students and staff to be under way.
The latest decision coincides with the plan completed earlier this month, envisioning the provision of larger scale lectures. However, Minister Harris believes that this is only achievable with much lower case numbers and risk levels. Last month’s plan concluded that with the benefit of mass vaccination, the environment would be achievable by Autumn 2021.
Although the plan advises third-level students to begin planning for large-scale lectures, ventilation modifications may need to be carried out. Larger lectures may also need to be rearranged to accommodate remote learning, if the public health advice warranted it.
To ensure a reduced on-site population, adjustments need to be made to timetables and remove the risk of overcrowding. The report also warns that the reopening of third-level education may be coming at the wrong time as most students will still yet to be vaccinated.
In supporting reopening in 2021, the plan recommends a “robust vigilance system” to prevent significant clusters of cases appearing. Third-level students in Limerick and Galway reported huge numbers of cases this year, something the plan seeks to avoid a repeating. Expected to form part of the system to monitor and screen students, testing for COVID-19 and antigens is now being piloted in four universities.
The plan being brought before Cabinet today informs them of a significant increase in on-site college screening from September. Thousands of staff and students will undergo regular testing and if there are encouraging results, then rapid testing would be rolled out in all third-level institutions. The project, named UniCov, will involve a large-scale comparative analysis of rapid testing technologies and will start on Monday in NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin, UCD and UCC.
Simon Harris expresses a willingness to test the efficacy of antigen testing as a screening and monitoring tool on third-level campuses. The minister said rapid antigen testing “may potentially be an element of this system. If proven through piloting and feasibility, the benefits of rapid testing could be a significant additional tool in our fight against Covid-19. It does not replace the public health advice”.