How universities can make re-opening safer in the autumn

There are five key factors that universities should consider ahead of the start of the new academic year, according to a new blog in the British Medical Journal.

Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

This time last year, just as the initial lessons were filtering through from chaotic campus reopenings in the US, Gavin Yamey (professor of global health and public policy at Duke University) wrote in the Journal that reopening universities (he meant campuses) was “high risk”, and offered some suggestions which were either too late to contemplate or proved too difficult for governments and universities to implement.

Now he’s back with Simon Williams (senior lecturer in people and organisation at Swansea University), reminding us that studies suggest that about 10 per cent of infected people at any age can develop long Covid, that infected students can infect other vulnerable adults on campus, and that there is evidence that campus outbreaks can drive infection in the communities around the university.

Vaccination coverage is the first consideration, where they point to a new modelling study that finds that universities that achieve vaccine coverage of over 90 percent may safely return to normality. Without vaccine mandates at university or government level, that feels like a high bar to reach for most UK universities – although whether providers will even have or gather reliable data on vaccine take up is a whole other issue, and feels like a big hold when it comes to assessing risks.

The second suggestion is to delay or phase in autumn re-openings or incorporate a blended learning approach to avoid a mass migration of all their students over a matter of weeks. Maybe some phasing is being done locally, but generally in the UK the approach seems to be to blend the learning but allow the new household formation to happen all at once in most universities, which is just a remix of the “classrooms at 30% but halls at 100%” problem.

The third idea is to invest in ensuring adequate ventilation across campuses, including in classrooms and accommodation. It argues that between now and the start of the academic year is sufficient time for substantial investment in HEPA filters and CO2 monitors to ensure adequate ventilation across university buildings. This is certainly a focus of UCU, and as the authors point out would provide benefits not just in the short-term related to Covid 19, but also in the longer term for respiratory diseases – including “freshers flu”.

The fourth issue is effective contact tracing, combined with effective on-campus testing, isolation, and support – where additional resources to encourage adherence to and mitigate negative impacts of self-isolation should be made available. Outside of some outsized pockets of investment and innovation, both nationally and locally this still feels like a fairly hopeless area when it comes to students – not least because as it stands DfE is advising that routine LF testing may well stop before some terms start.

Finally, number five is that masks still have a role to play – yet in England DfE’s revised guidance now says that while “face coverings are no longer advised in teaching rooms or in communal areas” it also “expects and recommends that they are worn in enclosed and crowded spaces where people may come into contact with people they don’t normally meet.”

Insert facepalm emoji here.

One response to “How universities can make re-opening safer in the autumn

  1. And I was thinking this article would be about mental health, which is far and away the biggest health crisis our students will face this year. Most of them do not see Covid paranoia as relevant to them, possibly correctly so, on balance.

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