Universities in England should end in-person teaching and switch to online classes by early December so students can return home safely for Christmas, the Government has said.
Students will be allowed to travel between December 3 and December 9 to ensure families can be reunited for the festive break, guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) will say.
Universities are expected to set staggered departure dates during this “student travel window”, and work with other institutions in the region to manage pressure on transport infrastructure.
It is hoped the risk of transmission will be reduced as students will be travelling after the four-week period of national restrictions in England.
Universities will be told to move learning online by December 9 in guidance to be published today so students can study from their family homes.
The Government – which will work closely with universities to establish mass testing capacity – has said Covid-19 tests will be offered to as many students as possible before they travel home.
Universities in areas of high prevalence will be prioritised for mass testing, the DfE has said.
Students will have enough time to complete the self-isolation period and return home for Christmas if they test positive for Covid-19 before the travel window.
But if a student decides to remain on campus later into the month, they will need to remain in self-isolation in their student accommodation for 10 days if they test positive for coronavirus.
Universities will be asked to provide additional help and support – including affordable food – to students who remain on campus over Christmas.
Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said: “We know this Christmas will feel different, and following this incredibly difficult year we are delivering on our commitment to get students back to their loved ones as safely as possible for the holidays.
“We have worked really hard to find a way to do this for students, while limiting the risk of transmission.
“Now it is vital they follow these measures to protect their families and communities, and for universities to make sure students have all the wellbeing support they need, especially those who stay on campus over the break.”
Dr Jenny Harries, deputy chief medical officer, said: “The mass movement of students across the country at the end of term presents a really significant challenge within the Covid-19 response.
“The measures announced today will help minimise that risk and help students get home to their families as safely as possible for Christmas. It is crucial that students follow the guidance in order to protect their families and the communities they return to.”
A Universities UK (UUK) spokeswoman said: “University students and staff will appreciate confirmation of the government’s end-of-term plans for English universities, given the prolonged uncertainty they have faced this year.
“With universities being asked to end in-person learning by December 9, some students will now miss out on timetabled placements, practical classes and other in-person teaching near the end of term.
“Universities will need to work with students and Government to manage the challenges this creates.
“The Government must now urgently turn its attention to working with the sector on plans to ensure students can safely resume their studies in person in January, supported by enhanced testing capability.”
Durham University is already running a pilot project for rapid Covid-19 testing – including identifying those who might be infectious but have no symptoms.
The Lateral Flow Tests (LFT), which delivers results in just 30 minutes, uses a nose and throat swab and they are self-administered.
So far, several hundred staff and students at two of Durham’s colleges have taken part in the voluntary pilot. The university is now exploring whether it is feasible to roll out mass testing across the whole institution before Christmas.
On the Government’s plans to establish mass testing capacity on campuses, Professor Jacqui Ramagge, executive dean for Science at Durham University and project sponsor, said: “I don’t think very many [universities] will be prepared for this because I think it’s a massive undertaking.”
Prof Ramagge told the PA news agency: “I think the biggest challenge is going to be for the universities themselves to be able to organise it.
“We’re very lucky in that we have a head start and we’ve already been putting in place all of this logistical effort to try and get tests to students and staff, so we’re ahead of the game.”
The University and College Union’s general secretary, Jo Grady, said the Government’s plans were “riddled with holes” and “raise as many questions as they answer”.
She said: “Allowing just a week for around one million students to travel across the country leaves little room for error.
“If the Government instead told universities to move online now it would provide much more time to stagger the movement of students and better protect the health of staff, students and their wider communities.”
Dr Tim Bradshaw, chief executive of the Russell Group – which represents the most selective universities in the UK, said: “The Government confirming its position on the end of term is welcome, however a mandatory cut-off date for in-person teaching to deliver a ‘student travel window’ does create practical challenges for universities, which our members will now work hard to mitigate.”