In essence the Department for Education’s plan to get students home for Christmas is simple.
While we are in lockdown, providers of higher education should provide face to face teaching on campus. Then when we come out of lockdown, they have to move that teaching online. Makes perfect sense.
Like everyone else, students (in England) will follow national restrictions until 2 December – at which point we all emerge, blinking, into a few hours of weak winter sunlight – and students will enter something capitalised as the Student Travel Window. This newly-created aperture will be open between 3rd and 9th of December (just in time for both Oxford and Cambridge’s end of term on the 4th) and will give students seven days to return to their out-of-term address. Universities are asked to work together, locally, to stagger departure dates and manage transport congestion.
We’re not at all sure if this spreads out student migration in December, or in fact has the unfortunate and ironic potential impact of concentrating something that usually happens over a month or so into about a week.
Meanwhile, mass Covid testing – using the new whizzy lateral flow tests – will be available on (some) campus(es). Whether your university gets to do this will be based on a range of factors including local prevalence rates, whether testing is available already and the percentage of high-risk students in each institution. The tests are supposed to require no special skill to administer, so it is likely that university staff and student volunteers will be testing students in sports halls and other large rooms. Any student who tests positive will get an NHS track and trace test, and the chance to isolate for 10 days before travelling.
To facilitate all this, any remaining university teaching due to take place before the break will be mandated to move online by 9 December. The assumption here appears to be that a student who attends a parcel of face to face teaching on the 8th that then gets a positive asymptomatic test would still have two weeks to self-isolate before travelling home on Christmas eve. It seems like an awful lot of effort and testing capacity when the alternative would presumably be to just move to online teaching now – but maybe asymptomatic testing kits are cheaper than tuition fee and rent refunds.
There are some additional measures for nations, though little real sign of the kind of coordination we were promised Michael Gove was facilitating. Students returning to England from elsewhere are told to isolate for 14 days either before or after returning home if they have not been party to the four weeks of national restrictions in England. We’ll assume, for now, that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will be happy to receive students leaving England during the STW. Further advice for students will be provided… “shortly”.
Is that it?
The simplicity of the plan is very much its best feature. It is clearly not going to be effective in halting the national growth in cases due to Covid 19 – the plan itself is low risk, but because of the low and falling Covid prevalence in student areas rather than any skill or expertise inherent in the design. Mass migration would have been a huge risk in early October, it is a lower risk (but still a risk) now. Students may now be travelling to areas of high prevalence, they are less likely to be travelling from them. If anything, students ought to be demanding that those they live with at home get asymptomatically tested to avoid infecting students.
The idea of mass testing is eye-catching, but everything we have seen suggests that the tests are voluntary. Contrary to much of the press coverage in recent days, students will not need a negative test to travel, but a positive test will prevent them (and their household, surely?) from leaving before Christmas Eve. A negative test, of course, is not the same as a certificate of immunity – students may become infected at any time between the moment the swab is taken and the point they hand their mum a bag of washing.
There’s also no way of enforcing the “Student Travel Window”. A lot of students headed home before lockdown part two, a few will take a chance and travel during the lockdown. Students may be collected by anxious parents or guardians at any point. Other students will never travel home, electing for whatever reason to remain at their term-time address. Students are also being strongly advised not to take advantage of any easing of restrictions between Dec 2nd and their designated return home day during the ensuing week, and to support that providers are told not restart any social and extra-curricular activities on 2 December, and are fancifully asked to work with hospitality settings in the local area to discourage opportunities for students to socialise extensively prior to their departure home.
Into the detail
If you’re someone that likes to abide by the law, what we don’t yet know is what sorts of restrictions on movement (into or out of an area) or on gatherings (which would prevent a student from “visiting” home legally if in force as they have been) will apply and in which locations between December and the end of January. If there are any, it looks likely that legal exemptions will need to be created for students in all four parts of the UK – which will raise equity questions with everyone else, and by Christmas week itself will likely need to be lifted for everyone so that the whole electorate can gather around the turkey for Mrs Brown’s Boys.
Because all of the testing will be voluntary, it’s not really clear what the incentives are for students to get an asymptomatic test. It is hoped that a publicity campaign, rumoured to include a mobile app (which may or may not request “location services” permissions) will encourage students to follow the guidance and take a test before they travel. It’s a gamble based on a public appetite for doing the right thing worn thin by government incompetence and Barnard Castle. But mere luck (and students and providers doing the right thing regarding outbreak management) makes it a gamble with lower stakes than it could have been.
The one advantage we can see is in a small exemption buried in the guidance for students who are identified as a close contact of someone who has tested positive. If they can access testing via the mass testing programme, and they do so and test negative, they must still self-isolate for 14 days but this can be done at home if they wish to do so, taking into account the risk of transmission to their family. Students should only use public transport if they have no other option, and should strictly follow safer travel guidance for passengers. Where mass testing is not available, students will have to self-isolate as usual in their current accommodation and not return home.
“Other” types of student
For those (away from home) students remaining on campus (and, you would assume, in the local area) universities have been “asked” to provide additional help, practical support and “special plans” – DfE says universities should ensure students in this position are properly cared for and can access affordable food, medical and cleaning supplies if needed.
We don’t yet know if the rules that prevail at the time will actually allow them to see another human being on Christmas Day, but it will be up to universities to pop some Persil through the letterbox for what could be six to eight weeks of pretty lonely living. Whether universities will be allowed to consolidate who’s leftover Christmas into a smaller number of households, or will even just be allowed to open up the refectory so the vice chancellor can deliver Xmas lunch dressed as Santa is anyone’s guess.
Commuter students carry on regardless, of course, piling onto buses to experience their face to face teaching and travelling back to “gran” every night. Students on placement remains an unresolved issue, although healthcare students who are on placements are “considered essential workers” and should therefore remain in their placements until the end of term. And we’re assuming that all of this is really about students on taught programmes, although it’s never said out loud.
It gets messier
The plans have prompted several questions on governance, indemnity, resourcing and costs recovery from university leaders. There’s no information on how the testing centres and additional student support will be paid for – and you’ll be unsurprised to see that our increasingly bare £256m magic money twig is given another shake in the press release, this time for “hardship support”. There is no information about liability – students who will miss out on the planned face to face towards the end of term and who lose two paid for weeks in accommodation will certainly complain, as will the communities who may link the return of students with a rise in cases.
For the ongoing Covid learning detriment cases, universities will now be required to move to online-only provision by government rather than by choice, and the guidance reminds us the government has powers under the Coronavirus Act 2020 to force providers to stop face to face teaching. It won’t be possible for a student to argue they should be getting more in person teaching from a provider after the 9th – in person teaching won’t be allowed. The slightly invidious invocations of consumer rights by ministers and regulators may well cease – government has caused a learning detriment, and the assumption that providers will front out fee refunds as needed now looks decidedly shaky – although OfS may well argue that students should have been warned.
One more thing
Of course all four governments now need to pull a plan for another national migration out of nowhere for January and February 2021 if students are to safely travel back next term. We don’t know where we will be with the virus – there’s an outside chance a vaccine or the rollout of the “moonshot” mass testing nationally makes the whole exercise moot, but there’s also smart money on a third wave. Having weathered the storms this term there’s a question over how many students or providers will be keen to repeat the experience.
To accidentally cause outbreaks via mass migration once is deeply regrettable, to do it twice is looking disturbingly like you value not bailing out universities more than you do public health. And even if you can get students to campus safely, there will remain the uncomfortable realities of campuses whose capacity has been reduced while halls and housing (where your problem was last time) will be even more densely populated than September thanks to additional international arrivals.
On this level, you can understand governments being reluctant to even sketch out a plan – when asked about it in Parliament, Matt Hancock shrugged his shoulders, said “one step at a time” and sat back down. But the same has been said (on Wonkhe, at least) about Christmas since May. Governments have been lucky this time. They might not be lucky again.