Higher education institutions (HEIs) represented by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) have released a joint statement confirming the return to college campuses in September.
The sector-wide commitment to reopening builds upon the Safe Return Plan (a safe return to on-site further and higher education and research) published by the Department of Further and Higher Education, Innovation and Research in June.
Describing the return to college campuses as a “priority”, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation & Science Simon Harris said the joint statement was a “significant step forward”.
The HEI’s joint approach is welcomed by the government and endorsed by public health authorities. The commitment to reopening is based on three pillars: that higher education has been deemed an essential service by the government, that there is an overwhelming desire from students to return to on-campus learning and research, and that the majority of adults will have had the opportunity to be vaccinated by September.
Chair of IUA and President of NUI Galway Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh said: “We are looking forward to welcoming our students back to our 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.”
The HEI’s joint statement announces measures that will be implemented across the sector, while allowing for institutional discretion as HEIs adapt these measures according to their local contexts, in consultation with staff and students.
According to the statement, the HEIs will commit to adhering to public-health informed Government guidance and “maximising and optimising the on-campus experience for all students”. The public health risks will be balanced “carefully” against “the known pedagogical, student experience, and mental health benefits”. Meanwhile public health and care will be given “primacy” for the “welfare and safety” of college communities.
The statement also noted “the critical need for personal responsibility and shared collective responsibility to facilitate the safe operation of campus life”.
The HEIs promise to consider “the needs of all students,” regardless of level, year or discipline, and will adopt a separate protocol agreed by the HEIs for the arrival of international students. Access to research spaces, laboratories, placement sites and other settings will be facilitated “as appropriate”.
The statement continued to say that HEIs will ensure that all campus operations are conducted to manage any risk to individual and public health by adhering to regulations, guidance and advice relevant at the time, such as implementing hygiene measures, requiring face coverings, optimising ventilation systems, controlling exit and entry to buildings and lectures, and managing lecture times and occupancy limits.
The HEIs said that they will “continue to provide specific extra supports for students where required” and will “protect through reasonable accommodation any member of the research or learning community for whom vaccination is medically contravened”.
At the same time, the institutions will “promote fullest engagement with the vaccination rollout”, “collaborate with the HSE to ensure rapid access to testing and vaccination”, support procedures for testing symptomatic staff and students, and have “appropriate arrangements for management of disease incidence and investigation and control of outbreaks”.
The HEIs anticipate that the public health context will evolve as the year progresses. The protocol aims to provide a “sustainable year” on campus and address “all scenarios which can reasonably be anticipated”.
The institutions will continually evaluate campus operations in light of the developing public health status, aiming to “enhance further the on-site experience of the institution in line with the overall progression of disease control and mitigation measures”.