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‘Phased student return and masks in lectures can make campus reopenings safer’

By Aine Fox, PA

Masks in crowded lecture halls, a phased return of students next month and better ventilation across campuses can help avoid a “chaotic” return of universities, academics have said.

Universities should take a number of steps to make the autumn term as Covid-safe as possible, including increasing vaccine uptake by offering jabs on site, the pair said.

Their “five key considerations” for universities welcoming students back also include good contact tracing alongside effective on-campus testing, isolation, and support, which they said is “key to minimising any impacts of transmission on and beyond campuses”.

The joint opinion piece, published in The BMJ, is by Simon Williams, senior lecturer in people and organisation at the school of management at Swansea University in Wales, and Gavin Yamey, professor of global health and public policy at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina.

They warn of the risk to students of getting ill with the virus and developing long Covid, as well as the danger of infected students passing the disease on to vulnerable adults on campus, including teachers and university maintenance and service staff.

The pair also say campus outbreaks can drive infection in the communities around the university.

They wrote: “In the United Kingdom, like the US, chaotic re-openings (last year) sparked outbreaks that plunged ‘entire flats and halls of residence into lockdown’.”

The latest Government guidance is that students and staff should test twice each week using home test kits or at an on-site testing facility until the end of September.

The approach after that time will be reviewed “in response to the latest public health advice”.

The Department for Education is also encouraging universities to look at how to increase jab uptake, although there are no plans to introduce so-called vaccine passports for students to attend.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “Universities are preparing for the coming academic year to ensure that students can return safely. In line with all other settings, higher education providers should continue to conduct risk assessments for their particular circumstances, in line with the latest Government guidance.”

The academics wrote that a phased return could “avoid a mass migration of all their students over a matter of weeks”, and encouraged investment in adequate ventilation across campuses, including in classrooms and accommodation, which they said would bring a longer-term benefit against Covid-19 and other respiratory diseases.

They added that masks still have a role to play in certain circumstances, including where social distancing is not possible such as in large group classrooms, where they say face coverings “should be required as a precautionary measure for the initial phase after reopening”.

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