More than 200,000 third-level students in the State will be allowed to return to campuses from September with nearly all facilities fully open, under proposals being brought to the Government.
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris will on Tuesday seek approval at a Cabinet meeting for almost all education and other activities to reopen as part of the Government’s wider Covid-19 reopening plan.
If approved, institutions should plan on the basis that everything will return. Large-scale lectures will be allowed, contingent on the outcome of a further report on the latest public health data and information due to be delivered to Mr Harris’s department next month.
The facilities that will reopen in all circumstances are laboratory teaching and learning, tutorials, workshops, smaller lectures, research, workplaces, libraries, canteens, sports facilities, clubs and societies and bars.
All of the activities will be subject to public health guidelines in operation in relation to distancing, maximum numbers and social protocols.
Mr Harris is expected to tell Cabinet the sector will have built a robust system of protection in time for the academic year, with expectations that the vaccination programme for students, as well as staff, will be under way.
The decision is based on a plan completed by the department earlier this month. In the best case scenario, it envisages the provision of larger scale lectures but says this is achievable only in a very different public health environment, with much lower case numbers and very low risk levels.
It concluded that with the benefit of mass vaccination, this environment would be achievable by the autumn of 2021.
It advised third-level institutions to begin planning for larger lectures but said that might require modifications to ventilation and moving some of the larger lectures to remote learning if the public health advice warranted it.
To facilitate more activities, it also recommended adjustments to timetables as a means of reducing the overall population on-site at any one time.
The report is also said to caution that third-level education may be reopening at a time when most students have yet to be vaccinated.
It recommends what is described as a “robust vigilance system” to support reopening in 2021. There have been significant clusters of cases among third-level students in Limerick and Galway this year and institutions want to avoid a repeat of those experiences if possible.
Rapid testing for Covid-19, including antigen testing, now being piloted in four universities, is expected to form part of that system, to screen and monitor students.
Mr Harris will bring a memo to Cabinet on Tuesday informing it of a significant increase in on-site college screening from September, with thousands of students and staff undergoing regular testing. If the results are encouraging, he said, rapid testing would be rolled out in all third-level institutions.
The project, which will be called UniCov, will involve a large-scale comparative analysis of rapid testing technologies for use in monitoring and preventing the spread of Covid-19 in education settings.
It started on Monday in NUI Galway, Trinity College Dublin, UCD and UCC.
The commencement comes after a pilot scheme in the four universities using different forms of rapid testing, and also different methods of taking swabs. Besides antigen testing, Trinity also conducted Lamp tests, which are a rapid PCR-type test.
While other Ministers have shied from using antigen testing as part of their reopening strategies, Mr Harris has expressed a willingness to test the efficacy of antigen testing as a screening and monitoring tool on third-level campuses.
“Rapid antigen testing may potentially be an element of this system. If proven through piloting and feasibility, the benefits of rapid testing could be a significant additional tool in our fight against Covid-19. It does not replace the public health advice,” he said.