Are plans for January’s return to campus about to change?

There’s an important scoop in the Guardian this morning (Christmas Eve).

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Education editor Richard Adams is reporting that the (Westminster) government is delaying a promised “advertising blitz” aimed at preparing students to return to university after Christmas.

Apparently radio adverts aimed at students have been prepared urging students to not return to their student accommodation until told to by their institutions, upon which the ads were stressing students should take a Covid test as soon as possible, and avoid using campus facilities until they had received a negative result.

As we’ve argued before, while you may well argue that students are generally highly sensible and altruistic (we always do), basing your public health policy on students choosing to not spend time in accommodation that they are paying for is a fascinating move. Do we know how many returning “away from home” students moved in before Freshers’ week, for example? We don’t, although residents in and around the Smithdown Road in Liverpool could tell you a tale or two.

Obviously the big issue right now is whether and how the risk(s) have changed. This pre-print on the transmissibility and severity of the new strain of Covid-19 is doing the press rounds this morning – and the TL;DR for the sector is:

Our estimates suggest that control measures of a similar stringency to the national lockdown implemented in England in November 2020 are unlikely to reduce the effective reproduction number Rt to less than 1, unless primary schools, secondary schools, and universities are also closed.”

It’s worth noting that the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s modelling simply compared universities being “open” from 4 January 2021 with them remaining “closed” until 31 January 2021. The emerging problem with this kind of analysis is discerning what modellers mean by “open” and “closed”, given the heavy restrictions on campuses this last term and the emerging evidence that the problem was in halls not history seminars.

Where (away from students) students are matters in these options. It looks like modellers mean the spring lockdown as shorthand for universities “closed” (when we all but sent “away from home” students home), and what we did this past term as “open” (when we insisted they move to the local area). In other words, they are not framing the decisions as ones about campuses and/or face to face teaching, they mean whether we allow or facilitate students en masse to move house into HMOs and halls of residence.

A suggestion to not move back yet between repeated plays of All I Want For Christmas Is You on Heart FM may not be the public health masterstroke officials think it is.

One way to argue that any risk is being managed is via mass moonshot testing. We had a quick look at the emerging debate over the efficacy of university testing the other day – and since the Birmingham story found itself in the press, some counter evidence has been emerging. Interim findings from the evaluation of Liverpool’s community testing pilot were published yesterday by the University of Liverpool that found that the Innova lateral flow device identified two fifths of positive PCR cases and potentially two thirds of people with higher viral loads, who are more likely to be infectious. Whether that’s good enough depends on your perspective – several opinions are available in the press today.

Certainly those running the Durham University testing pilot have been questioning why Birmingham’s evidence seem to them to be an outlier – and more to the point have been advocating regular screening (rather than “entry testing”) as a way forward:

The chances of someone being positive when they are repeatedly testing negative is very, very low”.

Jacqui Ramagge, who led student testing efforts at the University of Durham

The university has even said that “regular testing will pave the way to a more fulfilling wider student experience, with a range of mixed household, but still socially distanced, activities.” These activities, according to the student newspaper, may include sports, clubs, societies and “formals”, although I’d not be betting on being able to run an in-person refreshers fair if I was a student activities manager.

So will the plan on return to campus in January be somehow changed or delayed?

If we assume that the policy for universities (frequently framed as big boarding schools in public policy terms) will track closely behind schools, and that policy in the devolved nations will track closely behind England’s (both good bets based on 2020), it’s worth noting this story in the TES from yesterday. It revealed that a decision on how and when pupils will return is now not due to be made until after Christmas, after a meeting involving Department for Education (DfE) and the prime minister was postponed.

If you relate the testing efficacy issue to the way in which the tests are being administered, universities could get caught up in the schools policy slipstream. They’re all about to do mass testing and staggered starts too – but there are big concerns over readiness and resourcing, with concerns over staffing and the way guidance is being issued exemplified by one Ms Mason – head teacher at Chase Terrace Academy in Burntwood (my old school, fact fans) whose quote on this has been all over the news:

The government at the very last minute again have literally broken the teachers.”

The DfE insider quoted in the TES story says that there are “basically two camps” – one that thinks we should wait to see what happens with case numbers over Christmas because over the two weeks it could resolve itself, and another camp that thinks that this will not resolve itself over two weeks, that the situation could get worse and that a decision needs be made to move schools online:

I think the lead option will be two to three weeks of schools being online while schools are getting this mass testing set up.”

That could mean a change to the plan for universities. It could also mean every other part of education is effectively told to do what universities are being told to do in January. As well as testing efficacy, it effectively all comes down to how many (residential) students we might estimate are on courses that universities have defined as “category one” in the DfE guidance, and how many (residential) students we think will stay away from their student accommodation until teaching starts.

I’d be surprised if anyone has calculated up a decent estimate of the former, although I wouldn’t be surprised if DfE was underestimating the number of courses with a “practical” element. I’d definitely be worried about anyone estimating with real confidence the number that will stay away until that radio ad’s “green light”. Anecdotally, and judging by press coverage of student parties, it would certainly appear to be the case that returning residential students were around ahead of formal freshers’ weeks back in September, and that prospect is already causing consternation across the country in relation to what happens next. We may yet see stories as such over New Year’s Eve.

One thing that is clear is that for many students, the actual difference between running an hour of in-person teaching a week or not (when arrangements need to be in place for them if they need to self-isolate) is pretty miniscule, even if the difference is major for universities. What’s also clear is that what students are able to do in the other 120 or so hours a week they are awake remains much more important to their mental health.

Add to that questions like whether international students will still enrol or return, and even if January is still “on”, you start to wonder if it’s worth it – in more ways than one. And then there’s vaccination. There will come a moment, hopefully in late February, when deaths and hospitalisations fall through the floor thanks to the vaccine. By then we may well be asking why we’re not pushing the end of the academic year (and the start of the next) back a month – if nothing else, schools need a few more weeks to get students ready for exams.

Surely if vaccine supply picks up, university facilities and both their staff and students may well look like the sort of things that state should use to get that jab into people’s arms as quickly as possible?

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