The collapse of the Covid-secure campus

We are now into September 2020 and plans to allow students to come back to university campuses are proceeding. Universities have been required by the Office for Students to inform new and returning students what they might be able to expect in terms of teaching (online or face to face) in 2020/2021 and how quality, standards and a good student experience will be maintained. 

However, evidence is emerging that even the high degree of planning for Covid-secure campuses that has happened over the summer might not be enough to prevent students, staff and communities from spreading the virus. 

Nobody, apparently, wants to be the second campus to tell students they are going to be studying totally online; the University of Cambridge made an early decision in May to go to online classes for the next academic year. 

By contrast, the University of Bolton was the first to release extensive and detailed plans for a Covid-secure campus which would allow for the resumption of face to face classes, and the University of Leicester has promised Covid screening to reassure new students deterred by the recent city lockdown. 

Everything was looking hopeful until August when universities opened up in the US and offered the UK a preview of what happens when you invite thousands of students back to Covid-secure campuses and hold them to unrealistic expectations. The first forewarning came from cities in the southern states of Florida, Georgia, Alabama and Texas as videos of mass outdoor parties circulated on social media. These were followed by a spike in positive tests, even when those cases were asymptomatic. In swift succession, cases in Iowa surged, mainly in cities with large universities. These were all states where the rate of positive tests was well over 10%. And then came SUNY Oneonta, a campus I know well – I taught there at one time and my spouse retired from there recently. Here was a small (6000 students) rural, upstate campus where the positive test rate in the region had been around 1%. Within two days of starting, mostly online, classes, there were over 100 cases. The problem, evidently, was bringing students back to residences where naturally they would want to congregate, and perhaps also visit the town bars (alcohol being banned on most US campuses). As of today (7th September) the college reports 651 cases. It is now beyond dispute that the Covid hot spots are tracking the migration of students. And let’s hope the colleges are able to quarantine infected students in order to prevent exporting the virus as they leave campus to return home. 

Some universities have been more successful at securing public health. Duke University, among others, has used constant pool testing to identify the presence of virus as well as screening of all returning students. They have also reduced the number of students resident on campus by 30% and moved most classes online. These strategies point the way to offering students some kind of quality experience while learning and living with Covid on campus. 

In the UK, though, the warnings from the US are not being fully heeded. Universities UK, the group representing university managers, has indicated its preference for some face to face teaching to be offered by universities. UUK retweeted a letter published in The Times, with the comment, “The majority of UK universities will provide a combination of online and face-to-face teaching this year where it’s safe to do so. The importance of having in-person contact with tutors has been flagged by 100 leading academics in the Times today”.  

As a result of this steer, most universities are still making plans to open university residences,  even while most classes are online, with the promise of some face to face teaching. This is probably the most ill-advised fudge they could have come up with. What it suggests to critics is that universities have been more concerned with recruiting students and their tuition fees than with safeguarding public health.

Many academics and support staff have been resistant to teach face-to-face, pointing to new and evolving information about the transmission of the disease and concerned about their own vulnerability to it. And it appears now that their reluctance has been vindicated by the Independent Sage group of scientists which has counselled caution regarding opening of campuses to students.

Universities should focus on providing excellent quality remote learning by default, with regular review points, rather than deliver in-person teaching on campuses that are likely to close again.

To the disappointment of some university managers, the more formal Sage group has confirmed the view that:

There is a significant risk that Higher Education (HE) could amplify local and national transmission, and this requires national oversight. It is highly likely that there will be significant outbreaks associated with HE, and asymptomatic transmission may make these harder to detect. Outbreak response requires both local plans and coordinated national oversight and decision-making. [Sage statement 3rd September]

Their report recommends clear strategies for testing and tracing, warning that ‘accommodation and social interactions are likely to be a high-risk environment for transmission to occur’ which is less easy to mitigate. UCU fully endorses the opinion that the health of staff and students should come before other considerations. 

Paul Greatrix, Registrar of the University of Nottingham, writing on Wonkhe, offers a picture of what a ‘Covid-proofed’ campus should look like. He makes the case for full re-opening, with mitigations, and a commitment to managing student behaviour to address the fears of the wider community in which universities reside. “We have to begin the journey which will eventually get us back to something approaching normality.”

He details the following well-evidenced mitigations and preconditions:

  • Many buildings have been adjusted for social distancing arrangements
  • Plans have been made for delivering larger classes online
  • Changes to timetables to help with preventing crowded corridors, allowing for smaller class sizes and cleaning in between classes
  • Face coverings mandated indoors in many places
  • New Covid student codes of discipline and pledges
  • New restrictions on numbers of people who can be present on campus or in particular buildings at any one time
  • Physical changes to halls of residence
  • Working closely with Local Resilience Forums including in relation to local outbreak control plans
  • Planning how best to ensure an effective test and trace operation within a less than satisfactory national context.

It is the last point that should be the rate limiting step. News from all UK outlets today, confirmed on Twitter, is that testing is overwhelmed and not readily available in all areas, and yet the efficacy and availability of regular testing is key to reassuring staff and students that it is safe to return to regular classes. As SUNY Oneonta puts it, this is ‘a dynamic situation’, and it is time the UK recognised that pursuing a course that has not worked elsewhere, and expecting it to be different, will be disastrous. Paul Greatrix argues that  there can be no comparison between the US and UK HE contexts  but I am not convinced that the residential, sport, financial, regulatory and social models are different enough that the spread of Covid in the UK cannot be predicted from the US experience. There is a recurrent assumption by  those urging a return to classes that students can be contained within Covid-secure campuses. I suppose it is consistent with a view that positions students as service users rather than as members of a community, but it does fly in the face of reality. Students come to university towns and cities and take jobs, volunteer, join gyms, use bars and importantly, rent housing. Universities play an important social and community role, a view supported by the UPP Civic University Commission (and indeed by Greatrix himself).  To invite students back to campus and forbid them to socialise is a perverse attempt to shift the responsibility for the outcomes from university managers onto students.

We hear from the higher education minister, Michelle Donelan, that further guidance on opening campuses will be provided this week. Unfortunately, this comes after students have committed to university places and in many cases, to accommodation contracts. You can sympathise with ‘stakeholders’ who are wondering why this worst of all possible worlds has been allowed to unfold – or why the course towards adversity hasn’t been reversed.

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