Physical distancing rules of two metres will apply on college campuses from September in a move which will severely limit the ability of universities to hold lectures and graduation ceremonies.
The latest official public health advice states that in case where close proximity is required - such as small group work in laboratories - this activity may take place as long as face shields or masks are worn.
The guidance is contained in detailed roadmap published by Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris on Wednesday for all further and higher education institutions.
Universities have privately conceded that two metre social distancing will result in most lectures taking place online rather than in lecture halls.
However, they say the allowance for smaller group work taking place in closer proximity will be crucial for tutorials and lab work taking place,
The guidance also states that face shields may also be considered in place of face coverings for teaching, particularly if lecturers have concerns around voice projection or if there is a requirement for students to see their face.
It is also strongly recommended that graduation ceremonies which are scheduled to take place in the autumn should be postponed or replaced with virtual ceremonies.
Colleges may consider holding “multiple small, brief graduation ceremonies” in venues which can accommodate two metre physical distancing requirements during quiet periods such as mid-term breaks or reading weeks.
New protocols will be required for campus and classroom cleaning services which will include twice-daily cleaning of table tops, work equipment, door handles and handrails, along with regular cleaning of computers.
For student accommodation the official advice states that consideration may be given to housing students from the same study programmes together.
A particular concern exists in relation to shared rooms as the risk of transmission is more significant in such a setting. The guidance says consideration may also be given to retaining vacant some apartments with en-suite bedrooms to enable relocation should an outbreak occur in accommodation with shared facilities.
Mr Harris said it was clear that life on campus will not return as normal, but he said institutions were keen to ensure as much on-campus activity takes place as possible.
“We want to see students back at college but it must be safe for students, safe for staff and safe for the community. We must continue to stay vigilant and adapt our plans in line with the progression of Covid-19. With additional funding and guidance, our third level institutions have the necessary tools to return to education in a safe manner,” he said.
He made the comments at the announcement of a €168 million package of supports for further and higher education, which includes funding for digital devices for students, mental health supports and research.
It also covers costs incurred by third level institutions during the Covid-19 pandemic and aims to enable further and higher education students to reopen safely this September.
However, there will be no reduction in €3,000 third level student registration charges, which are among the highest in the European Union. Instead, a hardship fund which supports up to 14,000 students will be doubled in the coming year.
“Throughout the pandemic, further and higher education never closed. Even during the most restricted period of the pandemic, institutions and providers continued to provide education through emergency remote learning. We need to support them now as we seek to return in September,” Mr Harris said.
In order to tackle a significant digital divide emerging among students, he said a €15 million fund will provide access to electronic devices or WiFi for students who cannot afford them.
The announcement was welcomed by the third level sector which said it would bring stability.
Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association, said the funding was evidence of the government’s recognition of the key role that higher education and research has in helping to reboot the economy.
The Technological Higher Education Association said the public health guidelines will provide clarity around standards that will be needed to maintain safe learning environments and instil confidence in both staff and students that their health and well being is assured, while funding will help colleges reopen safely.