Independent SAGE calls upon Government to switch Universities to online teaching and give students a ‘right to return home’, as student infections rise

INDEPENDENT Sage has called for urgent action to slow the spread of COVID-19 in universities, with students being given “the right to return home” at any point during the term.  In an emergency statement released today, the panel of expert scientists, chaired by former Chief Scientific Adviser Sir David King, outlines five key recommendations to bring down infection rates.

The highest transmission rates nationwide are among 17 – 24 year-olds and modelling has shown that transmission occurs in residential halls and through in-person teaching. Independent SAGE recommends that all teaching be delivered online by default. Where in-person teaching is essential, it should be made contingent on regular testing of staff and students and with strict adherence to face coverings, hand washing, physical distancing and adequate ventilation.

Independent SAGE said in a statement:

“…in the context of a rapid increase in cases across the UK population, new local lockdown and other measures (e.g., “Rule of Six”), the Higher Education sector has already seen multiple and
increasing outbreaks across university campuses, starting with Scottish universities as their terms started, and across other cities in the UK. The media reports a rapidly deteriorating situation as universities attempt to manage the multiple crises of transmission, infections, and student welfare.

“There is, therefore, an urgent need, as of 28th September, to act quickly and pragmatically to 1) ensure the needs, health, wellbeing, and safety of students and staff; 2) prevent further transmission across campuses to students and staff alike, and, 3) quite simply, enable the ‘liveability’ of student life on campus in the coming weeks.

“Modelling shows that transmission occurs in residential halls and through in-person teaching. Thus, Independent SAGE recommends that universities immediately implement these five key recommendations:

1. Transfer all teaching and learning online by default.

2. Make essential in-person teaching and learning (e.g., components of laboratory or practicebased courses) contingent on the regular testing of students and staff, with a ‘dashboard’
approach as adopted by US Colleges, and with stringent adherence to face coverings, handwashing, physical distancing, and ventilation mitigations.

3. Offer students the choice whether to live on campus / in their university accommodation or at home elsewhere (e.g., with parents and caregivers) and review at the end of the calendar
year (i.e., December), and avoid numerous journeys between home and university.

4. Ensure that students who choose to remain at university while learning online maintain the right to return home for the rest of the term at any point, with accommodation fees refunded,
and with testing before doing so.

5. Ensure full and generous support to students both to self-isolate and to access online learning resources, including practical needs (e.g., food, laundry), learning (e.g., IT, connectivity), and
social and emotional needs (e.g., buddy systems, regular wellbeing checks, online events).

“We recognise that our recommendations have financial consequences for universities and for students and we call on the government to support the sector.

“To accompany these recommendations, we set out a targeted approach for testing Students must be given the option of returning home to study at any point during the term with a test before they leave and their accommodation fees refunded.”

Independent SAGE has also urged universities to ensure that adequate testing systems are in place and that students who are required to self-isolate are given a package of practical and emotional support and access to online learning resources to continue their studies.

In its statement Independent SAGE details the different ways in which universities are tackling testing, including outsourcing to private companies, partnering with local NHS laboratories or even developing their own testing infrastructure.

“This array of approaches demonstrates that universities have little faith in NHS Test and Trace to protect their students and staff, and the communities in which they live,” said Sir David King. “The innovative ways in which testing systems have been developed demonstrates what could be achieved if Test and Trace had made maximum use of existing health service and university structures.”