Foreign students need ‘wrap around’ quarantine support

Wrap-around quarantine support for international students arriving from countries with high rates of coronavirus will be key to the safe reopening of campuses, together with online teaching becoming the ‘default option’, according to a group of scientists providing independent scientific advice to the United Kingdom government and public on how to minimise deaths and support Britain’s recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

The Independent SAGE group, chaired by the former chief scientific adviser to the UK government, Sir David King, held a Zoom briefing on 21 August in partnership with the University and College Union and Times Higher Education to unveil its Consultation Statement on Universities in the context of SARS-CoV-2.

Their report warns that a higher number of home students are expected to start higher education next month following a British government U-turn on A-level grades, increasing the risk of UK universities opening and closing campuses as coronavirus infection rates go up.

This has already happened at two universities in the United States, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, which were forced to shut down on-campus teaching soon after students returned, says the report, which adds: “In at least one case, this was due to lack of infection control at social events.”

To minimise the risks to British higher education institutions, Independent SAGE challenges Universities UK’s position that students should be offered significant in-person teaching when the new academic year begins in the UK, referring to a Universities UK press release of 17 June 2020. This quoted Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK, saying that “most students can expect significant in-person teaching and a wide range of social activities and support services”.

Online classes

Instead, Independent SAGE recommends that online classes should be used exclusively for the first two weeks of term and thereafter remote delivery should be used for all but lab-based or practice-based programmes and that students’ social activities should also be reduced, with a semester-by-semester or term-by-term review of arrangements.

The report also calls for a huge expansion of regular testing for all students and staff, for face-to-face teaching to be avoided where possible and for students to be involved in creating a ‘conduct charter’.

Co-author Professor Liz Stokoe said: “It’s hugely important that universities are reopened, but students will be travelling from all over the country and the world [and] that will create risks of infection transmission, so it is essential to put detailed procedures in place so as to guarantee a safe return. This is essential for the welfare of students, of staff and the wider community.

“It would be disastrous if universities were forced to close as we’ve seen happen in the US, so we are urging them to play safe and work with students to mitigate the risks,” she said.

During the Zoom meeting launching the consultation statement, University World News asked the independent scientific panel what they would recommend in terms of handling quarantine arrangements for international students coming from countries with high rates of COVID-19.

Stephen Reicher, professor of social psychology at the University of St Andrews, said it was important to talk about support rather than enforcement for those asked to quarantine and self-isolate.

“What we want from universities is a comprehensive wrap-around package of support and planning for them,” Reicher said, adding that this should include meeting and bringing the student arrivals to the campus and providing them with the information and accommodation to self-isolate, plus the IT they need so that they can keep in contact and receive online social support.

Buddy system

“You could have a buddy system for all people who have to quarantine so they can be in contact with other people and don’t come to a foreign country and a strange town and don’t have any contact with anyone for two weeks,” Reicher said.

“It is better to think of wrap-around comprehensive support rather than presuppose that people are going to act badly and think in terms of being punitive and think in terms of enforcement,” he said.

John de Pury, assistant director of policy at Universities UK, said they had just released a comprehensive report, Self-Isolation for Students Arriving in the UK: Guidance and checklist for higher education institutions, for their member universities.

He agreed with Reicher that “this is very much about supporting students” and said: “Universities are paying for extra accommodation for international students and ferrying them from the airport and in many instances also chartering flights to bring in international students.”

He told University World News: “There is little variance between what Indie SAGE is recommending and what institutions are putting in place in respect to international students.”

A quick check around university websites confirms that many British universities are going out of the way to help international students who are required to quarantine.

Brunel University London says on its website that it is providing students who are self-isolating with free accommodation on campus and free delivery of three daily meals per day during the 14 day period for those able to arrive between 21 and 31 August.

Nottingham Trent University is another offering free accommodation for those able to arrive between 7 and 11 September and an airport pick-up service from London Heathrow and Birmingham airports on 7 September for international students who are required to self-isolate, according to their website. Booking ahead is required.

There is still uncertainty about how many international students will arrive for the start of the new academic year at British universities, with the vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, Professor Nancy Rothwell, warning in a message to staff of fears of the “likely loss” of half its international students because bookings for residence are well below expectations, as University World News reported on 24 July.

Louise Nicol, founder and managing director of Asia Careers Group SDN BHD based in Kuala Lumpur, told University World News: “Malaysian students are definitely booking flights to the UK to take up places, and research from a number of organisations, including the British Council, would suggest Indian students are keen to take up their places.”

She believes more students will come in January if they have the option to start their courses at the beginning of 2021.

This supports the view of the UK’s National Union of Students whose president, Larissa Kennedy, addressed the Independent SAGE Zoom meeting on Friday via a pre-recorded video. She said their survey of students showed that about a third of respondents said they would not feel safe about face-to-face teaching in September, including two-fifths of international students.

This dropped to 13% for January 2021. Nine out of 10 respondents said they would feel safe if they were taught exclusively online, said Kennedy.

Anna McKie from Times Higher Education said they had surveyed as many institutions as possible to find out their plans for the start of the new academic year, with most planning all lectures online and “most trying to get small group sessions face-to-face”.

She told the Zoom meeting: “Of those surveyed, 53 were requiring face masks in communal spaces on campus, only 24 institutions were requiring the wearing of face coverings during teaching because they could guarantee two metre social distancing.”

A spokesperson for Universities UK told University World News: “Across the sector, universities are conducting risk assessments and following – at minimum – official government guidance and the latest public health advice including considering where in-person activities can be delivered in a safe and responsible way.”

He said while the Independent SAGE report acknowledged the challenges posed by the ongoing pandemic, “it fails to recognise that many of its recommended mitigating actions are already being adopted by universities”.

“This includes enhanced cleaning protocols, limiting numbers for in-person teaching, offering high-quality online lectures and learning, improved ventilation, changes to university layout, adopting clear policies on face coverings, introducing timetable adjustments and having different approaches to ensuring safe social activities,” the Universities UK spokesperson said.

You can watch a recording of the Independent SAGE Zoom meeting on YouTube.

Nic Mitchell is a British-based freelance journalist and PR consultant who runs De la Cour Communications and blogs about higher education for the European Universities Public Relations and Information Officers’ Association, EUPRIO, and on his website. He also provides English-language communication support for European universities and specialist higher education media.