On 3rd June 2020 the Department for Education (‘DfE’) published guidance on the reopening of higher education institutions. This note aims to summarise the practical framework from the guidance to help educational providers consider likely steps needed to be taken in order to continue or restart operations during the coronavirus outbreak. It is important to note that providers have a duty of care towards staff and students and must continue to comply with these obligations.
Prospective and continuing students will inevitably be making important decisions about their academic future and should be provided with the right information at the right time. These decisions will prove more difficult than usual due to the ongoing uncertainty and therefore all current and prospective students should be made aware of any potential for changes at the earliest opportunity. Students should receive accurate and timely information in order for them to be able to make informed decisions.
Making a plan
HE providers should set out what measures have been put into place to ensure students and staff can return safely. Providers should be confident that steps have been taken to reduce any risks in accordance with government guidance. An appropriate coronavirus risk assessment should be carried out in the same way that would be done for any other health and safety related hazard. Risk assessments should be carried out for each individual campus and building that is proposed to open. It is being encouraged that institutions share practice so that there is consistency to reopening campuses and buildings that puts health and safety of all students and staff at the forefront.
International students who may have returned home should not be disadvantaged when it comes to teaching provisions, exams and other core elements of the learning experience. Therefore it is important to pay particular attention to these students that have been unable to return to the UK. It is for individual institutions to decide how to support international students however every effort should be made to welcome them back to the UK and responsibilities should start when the student lands in the UK, if not before.
Specifically, providers should ensure students are safe and well looked after during the current 14 day quarantine period on returning to the UK.
Students or staff who may be shielding are more likely to be at risk therefore attention should be paid to the guidance on shielding and protecting the vulnerable that can be found here.
Attention must also be paid to students who may have been released from accommodation contracts.
Can laboratories be used for research?
Laboratory science teaching requires the same considerations to be made as has been contained in the guidance on working safely during coronavirus, including in laboratories and research facilities. Essentially, laboratories can be used at HE institutions if it can be done in a way that reduces the risks to those using the facilities.
Reopening other buildings
Institutions should assess their own risk of reopening other buildings and implement suitable precautions. The guidance suggests opening low density buildings first and adopting a phased approach to providing access to the campus.
Note that libraries are required by law to cease their business during the emergency period and they are only allowed to provide services for orders made via website or on-line communications, telephones and text messaging, and post. Institutions should carefully consider how to make services available In line with these methods.
The current government guidance remains that those who are not in the same household should stay 2 metres apart. Risk assessments should be made to establish key considerations:
- The number of learners and staff to be included in each specific learning space that can be accommodated for safely
- Availability of staff and contingency plans in the event of shielding/self-isolation
- Support services required in conjunction with the number of individuals on site and how they can be provided for as safely as possible
- What measures will need to be in place to accommodate additional numbers attending the institution
Protective measures should be used including: increased cleaning, utilising outdoor space, managing entrances, exits and movement around the buildings and appropriate use of signage.
Institutions will need to prepare accommodation for students in the next academic year. Some of this accommodation will have been used for housing students who were not able to go to family homes during lockdown and therefore rooms and other facilities will need to be deep cleaned.
Students may be entitled to refunds from accommodation providers depending on terms of their contracts. If students need help then organisations such as Citizens Advice offer a free service providing information and support.
Student and staff wellbeing
HE providers are independent bodies that have a responsibility to support students with mental health issues. It has been clarified that providers can draw upon existing funding to provide hardship funds and support disadvantaged students impacted by coronavirus. The funding can be used for June and July towards student hardship funds which includes: purchase of IT equipment, mental health support and support of access and participation plans. There may be need for continuing support as campuses start to reopen and the protective measures to keep people safe while away from home take on ever greater importance.
It remains crucial that all institutions can work as safely as possible whilst supporting staff and students. Forward-planning should be maintained in order to implement any further developments. This area is subject to fast-paced change and will be kept under constant review in line with the latest government guidance.