Students will be back in lecture halls next month, under plans announced today by third-level colleges today.
However, limits may apply to the number attending at any one session and the time period allowed.
The rapid progress in the Covid vaccination programme has injected a new level of confidence about maximising the return to higher education, and preparations are at an advanced stage.
Each college will work out its own arrangements but agreement has been reached on a broad approach to a safe return to campus, taking account of public health advice.
Last year, the college experience was overwhelmingly online but the plan is for a “maximum on-site” presence in the new term.
Apart from an overwhelming desire of students to get back on campus, higher education is classified as an essential service.
The Irish Universities Association (IUA) the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland (RCSI) announced their approach today.
Their joint statement notes that the vast majority, if not all adults, including college students will have been offered the opportunity to be vaccinated by September.
It says reasonable accommodation will be made for any member of the research or learning community for whom vaccination is medically contravened.
The implementation plan builds on the A safe return to on-site further and higher education and research (Safe Return Plan) document published by Department of Further and Higher Education In June.
It outlines the range of mitigation measures that will be implemented, including mask wearing in indoor shared settings, in accordance with public health advice.
Covid-standard hygiene measures will be in place and colleges will work to optimise ventilation systems to minimise risk of viral transmission, in line with local context and risk assessment.
Entry and egress to buildings and facilities will be carefully managed via contra flow and other measures.
A major challenge for third-level colleges is conducting face to face lectures, involving hundreds of students in large halls.
The guidelines provide flexibility around managing lecture times to provide for controlled exit and entry to large halls and to avoid congregation.
In terms of managing the lectures themselves, possibilities outlined include applying percentage occupancy limits, setting a maximum class size, an upper limit on lecture length/ period of continuous occupancy.
What individual colleges decide will depend on local context and risk assessment.
The plan has been fashioned in a such a way as to address different public health scenarios that may arise with the aim of ensuring that campuses remain open for the entre academic year.
It will be kept under review to see what further easing of restrictions may be possible as the year progresses.
Everyone involved in the return to college will be advised of the critical need for personal responsibility and shared collective responsibility to facilitate the safe operation of campus life.
Colleges will collaborate with the HSE to ensure rapid access to testing and vaccination, including on-site provision if practicable, and will support standard procedures for testing of symptomatic staff or students.
IUA chair and NUI Galway president Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh said they were looking forward to welcoming our students back to campuses.
“We are determined to put in place all the measures advised by public health to make the return to campus safe and sustainable for our students, our staff and for society.
“A key element of this determination is personal as well as institutional responsibility and we urge all our students to take up the offer of a vaccination in good time for September.”
THEA chair Prof Vincent Cunnane said they were delighted to be bringing back significantly greater numbers of students for the coming academic year.
He also urged all students to avail of the opportunity to get vaccinated “to add to that level of confidence and to allow for a full student experience for the upcoming term.”