This week the Minister for Further and Higher Education Research Innovation and Science Simon Harris brought a proposal to cabinet on the return to campus for students this september.
This proposal would reopen third level education for the 21/22 academic year. A long awaited return to on campus activities is outlined in this proposal.
The plan lays out the return of laboratory and classroom teaching, while workshops, tutorials and small lectures are also expected to take place. It is hoped that large scale lectures will also be allowed to take place. Libraries and offices will also open on campus.
There will also be a reopening of campuses outside of the classroom. Canteens, bars, sports facilities will reopen along with clubs and societies all in line with public health advice.
It is understood that all plans are being made with strict social distancing and maximum numbers.
Universities and colleges will be given instruction on this reopening by the government in July.Mr Harris has also indicated that institutions will be notified about extra mental health and academic support that should be provided.
Vaccination will play a key part of the return to campus for students.The minister has spoken often over the the past few months about the vaccination of students in their return to campus.The minister has said that that most students will be vaccinated on their return to campus.Mr Harris said that the past year has been “rotten” for students this year.
He emphasised that this experience will be ending saying: “ College has been reduced to basically looking down a Zoom camera in the box room or at the corner of the kitchen table. That's ending. We are getting our students and our staff back to college.”
The minister has also been keen to note the lessons that have come from the past eighteen months and they will be taken into consideration in the reopening.
Measures will also be put in place to regulate the number present on campus at one time. This includes adjusting timetables and implementing a testing system on students.
A pilot scheme has been rolled out in four universities (UCD, UCC, TCD and NUIG). The project UniCov aims to monitor and prevent Covid-19 in educational settings.
There has been much debate around the effectiveness of antigen testing in the battle against Covid-19. The Minister and his department have been very clear that antigen testing will be used to facilitate the return to campus.
The Minister said; “Rapid antigen testing may potentially be an element of this system. If proven through piloting and feasibility, the benefits of rapid testing could be a significant additional tool in our fight against Covid-19. It does not replace the public health advice”
The Union of Students in Ireland has welcomed the plan published by the minister. In a statement the USI president said; “Students have told us they have been feeling very isolated and struggling with the lack of social interaction. They are extremely keen to get back on campus as soon as possible but know it must be in a safe manner. They want to get back into classes, but they also want to have an holistic college experience and so the plan for an almost full re-opening, with public health safety measures, was very important to us. We have been working with students, Students’ Unions, Government, institutions and others to give that as much chance as possible of happening. We are glad to have been involved in preparing this plan – which has been approved by public health leaders – as it aims to do just that.”
In recent months steps have also been taken to put measures in place to protect student renters. This bill was developed by the Students Union of Ireland in conjunction with Sinn Fein.The Residential Tenancies (Student Rents and Other Protections) (Covid-19) Act 2021 aims to force landlords and accommodation providers to return prepaid rent to students if student were unable to use the accommodation due to the pandemic.
Students would also be enabled to end contracts for accommodation that they no longer need and provide redress for students who may struggle to get their prepaid rent repaid.
While most students will not return to campus until early September, preparations are underway for this to begin. The proposal signed off by cabinet kickstarts these preparations. While all students have struggled over the past 18 months , this plan means that they can hope for a better college experience in the upcoming 21/22 academic year.