More from Scotland on the safe reopening of campuses

Last week we had a quick look at the debate over students and the transmission of Covid-19 in Scotland.

Devi Sridhar is professor and chair of global public health at Edinburgh University, a member of the Scottish government’s Covid-19 advisory group, and has played a key role advising Nicola Sturgeon on schools reopening policy.

Now she has published her advice on the arrangements that should apply for a safe reopening of university campuses. Universities Scotland has said its members will continue to follow the latest Scottish Government guidelines issued on July 31 – which don’t currently include a requirement for establishments to test returning students.

But asked about Sridhar’s call for university testing, at Monday’s coronavirus briefing Sturgeon confirmed that the university situation was still being “looked at” adding discussions are “ongoing”.

Sturgeon has thus far been more cautious than Westminster on “reopening” and easing – at least in tone. What we don’t know yet is whether this will translate into the adoption of Sridhar’s proposals.

So what is in the advice that could well become policy?

  • Quarantine: Uncontroversially, the proposal is for mandatory 2 week quarantine for students arriving from higher prevalence countries. Most of the secor around the UK is already making arrangements to facilitate this.
  • Testing: Here the advice is for there to be mandatory testing on arrival for all students (either at airports directly, or within universities within 1-2 days of arrival) and then also the setting up of “testing stations” in central university sites for routine testing (easy for students to access). The emphasis, she says, should be for testing both on arrival and 5 days later – but this is “obviously dependent on capacity available” (and presumably who will pay for these facilities).
  • Distance and hygiene: 2m distancing is proposed for classrooms, and ventilation of classrooms and other areas of high occupancy inclusive of social spaces. If 2m is not possible then “physical barriers” are to be used in addition to face coverings and hand hygiene. And as is already being advised, she proposes enhanced cleaning guidance and hand hygiene.
  • Conduct: In tandem with discussions in lots of universities, Sridhar recommends the inclusion of adhering to quarantine rules in student code of conduct handbooks – including disciplinary procedures if a student is found to have broken quarantine after a positive test result.
  • Apps: As is now increasingly common in universities in North America still contemplating a return to campus, the recommendation is the inclusion of strict daily monitoring and support of students during quarantine through an app – and through regular checks and phone calls (including using student orientation apps to provide information on Covid-19 testing, symptom reporting and quarantine). Is this Jisc’s time to shine, as was attempted over voter registration?
  • Masks: Unsurprisingly the proposal is mandatory use of face coverings on university sites (to align with mandatory use of face coverings in public transport/shops). Face coverings would be required in enclosed teaching/workspaces and in corridors, and reception areas of halls of residence, but would not be mandatory in outdoor areas of campus or inside living areas.
  • Thresholds: More controversially, Sridhar calls for “thresholds” of infection within certain subjects/labs which would require closing of that facility, or a stop to face-to-face tracing and moving online. Outbreaks, she says, should be managed by local authorities as with other outbreaks but universities need to report confirmed cases and comply with instructions.

There’s some interesting aspects here. What Sridhar is responding to is partly concerns that the virus can linger in the air – and as universities are “congregate” settings there’s an enhanced risk of transmission that could result in “superspreading events”. She’s also picking up and trying to find solutions to findings from multiple international surveys that indicate that students are not likely to self-report symptoms, or adhere to quarantine.

But why would these arrangements apply in universities and not colleges? Crucially, it’s not clear how some of the proposals translate into settings where the interactions between students and cities are more integrated than in campus universities in North America. What about students on buses? Commuter students? Or student to staff transmission?

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