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Universities rising to Covid-19 challenges

Third-level institutions are reopening, but students have campus guidelines to follow

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Students will be encouraged to get vaccinated at pop-up centres on campus. Photo: Niall Carson.

Students will be encouraged to get vaccinated at pop-up centres on campus. Photo: Niall Carson.

Students will be encouraged to get vaccinated at pop-up centres on campus. Photo: Niall Carson.

As third-level campuses start to fill up again for the first time in 18 months, they are going to look a little different.

Among the initial and most visible changes will be pop-up vaccination centres, with unvaccinated students and staff encouraged to take up the inoculation to keep campuses safe and open. They will also be available to partially-vaccinated members of the college community to minimise the travel and disruption involved in receiving a second dose.

Irish Universities Association director of learning, teaching and academic affairs Lewis Purser said Covid vaccination is a “game changer” for the sector.

Campuses have been in lockdown since the beginning of the pandemic, open only to students who needed access to specialist equipment or rooms to continue their studies as most learning was moved online in March last year. Vaccination is not mandatory for students, but is encouraged.

“Over 80pc of the 16 to 29-year-olds where our student populations are concentrated have had [at least] one dose and 75pc have had two doses. That’s the game changer,” Mr Purser said.

“Those numbers grew favourably in the last couple of weeks, and there will be huge support to encourage those students who are not fully vaccinated to become so.

“There will be a series of vaccination centres in universities and other educational institutions coming on stream over the next couple of weeks.

“It is protection for themselves, their families, their communities and the broader college community.

“Once you are fully vaccinated, even if you are a close contact of someone who has Covid, you won’t need to restrict your movements as part of the relaxed measures later this month. As a student, that means you get better protection, but also better access to indoor entertainment, bars, restaurants and all the things on and off campus.”

There will be other changes, with tweaks made to infrastructure to alter how people move through buildings to avoid congregating and crowding at entrances or in hallways. Improvements have been made for ventilation and to allow for the introduction of public health measures.

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While many students will know this is not how it used to be, some may not notice the difference. For most first and second-years starting their third-level journeys, this is the first time they will have set foot on campus.

Mr Purser said: “One of the big differences compared to this time two years ago has been introducing all of the public health measures we have all got used to and need to be adhered to.

“Face coverings, hand sanitising and improved ventilation where the rooms weren’t properly ventilated before and new systems to manage flows of people in and out of buildings or large lecture theatres to avoid congregation of people, particularly indoors, are all things in line with public health measures and which we have had to make changes for.

“We also have very clear guidance from public health officials in the HSE that the institutions have the autonomy and flexibility to risk-assess in their own campuses and their own operating environments for each specific setting.

“Each campus is different, every building is different, so that has had to be taken into account for the preparations that have been ongoing for the past couple of months.”

He said there have been many benefits brought about by the pandemic. The most significant is the enhancement of “blended” and online learning, with some universities upping their game and improving or adapting their digital infrastructure and approach to using technology as a teaching tool.

More change is afoot, which Mr Purser said will enhance and improve the third-level experience. This includes the introduction of additional spaces where students can participate in group work, new library booking systems to prevent queuing outside to secure a workspace to study in and more open-air spaces to meet or socialise.

“This is very positive, very exciting, and there has been a lot of preparation to make sure this academic year gets off on the best possible footing,” Mr Purser said.

“Two universities started back last week, there will be more this week and a few the week after that, so it is all systems go at this stage.

“We have good central collaboration across the entire higher education sector, good leadership with the Department of Higher Education and close contact with colleagues in the various regulatory agencies, so the Higher Education Authority, QQI [Quality and Qualifications Ireland] and, most importantly, student representatives and the Union of Students in Ireland.

“There has been a really good sectoral pull to help everybody and feel confident about getting back to campus in a systematic and sustainable way.”

A lecturer told the Sunday Independent there have been other noticeable benefits to emerge from the pandemic. They observed a slight jump in grades last year, “especially among the first-years”. She hopes this continues.

“Because they were at home last year and not living on campus or with other students, I suspect mammy or daddy were at home telling them to get upstairs for that lecture they otherwise would have skipped,” she said. “There was someone keeping an eye on them, and I think some students benefited from that. Hopefully, they carry those grades through now.”

The priority for university officials will be to make sure they stay open and campuses remain safe. Mr Purser said a staggered start will help.

The later-than-usual arrival of Leaving Cert results means CAO offers went out this month instead of last, so many first-years will start the academic year a little later than students in other year groups. This staggered start means numbers will be reduced for the first weeks of college and build gradually.

It also allows for inductions for first and second-years to be carried out separately, welcoming them on campus for the first time.

As well as the vaccine helping keep campuses safe, Mr Purser said antigen testing will play a role. Colleges have been part of a series of antigen programmes being studied as public health officials consider using the rapid tests in other sectors, including schools.

“Universities are very supportive of it because it is one of the tools that will help us through this and to get out of this and back to normality,” Mr Purser said.

“It is being expanded across the sector. Students have been key to that and encourage each other to participate so the data coming through can be very useful for the public health authorities.”

Visit our Covid-19 vaccine dashboard for updates on the roll out of the vaccination program and the rate of Coronavirus cases Ireland


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