Staggered return planned for university students after Christmas

Students in England will be asked to stay at home after Christmas and continue their studies online at the start of the new year as part of a staggered return to university to minimise the risk of Covid transmission.

The government wants students to stagger their journeys back to campus over a five-week period beginning on 4 January 2021, with everyone expected to be back at university by 7 February, and coronavirus tests available to all returning students.

New guidance says medical students and those on practical courses requiring face-to-face teaching will be prioritised for an early return. Other courses should be made available online from the beginning of term until students are able to return safely.

Announcing the plans, the universities minister, Michelle Donelan, said: “The health and wellbeing of students, staff and local communities is always our primary concern and this plan will enable a safer return for all students.

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“But we must do this in a way which minimises the risk of transmission. I know students have had to make sacrifices this year and have faced a number of challenges, but this staggered return will help to protect students, staff and communities.”

Universities have also been advised to prioritise students who may need to return to campus earlier because they do not have access to accommodation or study space, or because of mental health reasons, and the government announced a one-off fund of up to £20m to help those in exceptional need.

The announcement comes as a six-day travel window allowing students to leave university and travel home for Christmas gets under way on Thursday, with mass testing going on in 126 universities to help prevent the spread of Covid.

Many students have expressed frustration with their experience at university this term, with the bulk of studies online, social activities curtailed because of Covid restrictions, long periods of self-isolation and harsh penalties for breaches.

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The University and College Union, which represents university staff, welcomed the move to online learning at the start of the new year. UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: “This is a step forward, but plans for next term still pose a risk to staff and student safety. Universities must work with the government to support students who decide the reality of life on campus during this pandemic isn’t for them, including releasing them from accommodation contracts.”

The guidance says students should travel back to university by private transport where possible and avoid car sharing.

Students will be advised to have two lateral flow tests three days apart on their return to campus, with results turned within around an hour. If they are positive, they will be asked to self-isolate in their university accommodation. Those who spent Christmas in a tier 3 zone where community testing is on offer are asked to take a test before travelling back to university.



Universities UK, which speaks for 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, called for further clarity from government on how they will be supported to deliver testing in the new year, “given the significant resource requirements associated with the pilots so far”.

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