Free masks and potential pop-up vaccine centres to feature in college reopening – Harris

Minister Harris also expressed a desire to “end the points race” during the third-level admission process

Minister for Further and Higher Education, Innovation and Research Simon Harris has said that free face masks, pop-up vaccination centres, and antigen testing will be part of the return to on-campus university teaching this month.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland radio programme this morning, Harris laid out a number of measures the government will be taking to facilitate the safe return of in-person teaching at third-level institutions.

Harris said his department wants to make the process “as easy as possible for everyone” and will be providing free face masks on college campuses.

The department is working with the Health Service Executive (HSE) to potentially open up pop-up vaccine centres on campuses.

Harris noted that 83% of 18-24 year olds are already at least partially vaccinated, and “our young people are really enthused about vaccines in general”, but that it will be important to make getting vaccinated “as easy as possible” for those who aren’t yet fully inoculated.

He also noted that nine institutions in Ireland have already joined the UniCoV rapid antigen testing project and he “intend[s] to double that figure in the coming days”.

Harris said that he is “really excited” about the return of on-campus teaching.

“Students who have been doing college at the kitchen table in their mum or dad’s house, will now be going back to college” he said.

“I’m sure the parents will be glad to get the kitchen table back as well.”

“We have a plan to get people back to get people back safely. It’s not just my plan, people will be glad to know it’s endorsed by the [HSE] chief medical officer” he continued.

He noted, however, that when reopening of any sector occurs, “outbreaks happen”.

The government intends to coordinate between universities and the HSE to ensure PCR testing is available quickly for staff and students to locate and control such outbreaks.

Harris also repeated his commitment that on-campus non-teaching activities would be regulated in the same way as those happening in other places: “If you’re drinking in the college bar, it’s just like you’re drinking in the town or village bar, you have to have a vaccine pass.”

The minister said again that specific regulations on lecture sizes and the nature of teaching activities would be down to the judgement of each college, depending on the physical layout of their facilities.

Provost Linda Doyle invoked this sentiment last week when she said that Trinity was being more cautious than other colleges due to the compact nature of the campus.

Also during the RTÉ interview, Harris spoke about college entry procedures, with the release of Leaving Certificate (LC) results scheduled for tomorrow, saying he wanted to “end the points race.”

“We have to move on from the obsession with institutions and focus on career pathways. Whatever your results tomorrow, there are so many ways for you to get to where you want to be.”

He did however note that there will be more than 4,500 additional college places available for students this year, as many deferred their entry last year due to the pandemic.

He said that LC students should be made more aware of the potential to do preparatory courses at NFQ level six or seven in order to get into university courses without having received the necessary points in their exams.

Harris also said more students should be encouraged to consider doing apprenticeships.

“From November, when this year’s sixth year students log on to the Central Applications Office website, I want, for the very first time, for them to be able to see their further education choices and their apprenticeship choices.”

He concluded: “Tomorrow, I know there’s nervousness for many, many of our students, we’re all thinking of them It’ll be a day of great joy for people, and every year it’s a day of some disappointment too.

“We’re proud of everybody’s effort, and there are many pathways to get to where you want to, and we will work with you on that.”

Jack Kennedy

Jack Kennedy is the Editor-in-chief of the 68th edition of Trinity News. He is a Computer & Electronic Engineering graduate, and a former Assistant Editor, Online Editor, and Deputy Online Editor.