COVID-19 safety is top priority, say university principals

By Press Office

The Principals of Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions have all put their names to a joint statement to students, confirming that public health is their top priority as university leaders. The statement looks to reassure students and the wider public of the seriousness with which universities take their responsibility to take every possible precaution to protect public health.

The statement is published along with survey data, taken across Scotland’s universities, on the range of additional measures, specific to university settings, that institutions are taking to put public health first.

The statement comes as teaching resumes at universities across the country, albeit in a very different, blended model of in-person and online delivery which is also applied to other aspects of the student experience and student support services. The statement calls on every member of the university community to continue to act with personal responsibility and to continue to look out for one another and the wider community as universities start their “new normal” academic year.

Universities’ cautious return to a new model of delivery follows months of careful planning by institutions, working closely with up-to-the-minute public health advice and guidance, local health boards and Scottish Government. Staff unions and student associations continue to be an integral part of the planning process.

Commenting on the shared statement, Professor Gerry McCormac, Convener of Universities Scotland and Principal and Vice Chancellor of the University of Stirling, said:

“It’s vital to our university communities that we can safely welcome new and returning students to the start of the new academic year. Students have experienced so much disruption and uncertainty over the last six months and have shared the hardship felt by all of society because of the pandemic. It has been difficult for them, as it has for all of us, and we are immensely grateful for the part they have played in keeping each other safe up until now.

“Students need to get on with their lives and their education in a safe, positive and constructive way, but the pandemic is still very much a reality. Universities have worked tirelessly to ensure everyone’s safety as we plan for the new academic year. We have taken all possible steps to create a safe and supportive environment in which students can make a phased return. It has been a huge undertaking, with substantial adaptations to courses, timetables, and to the physical and online spaces needed to support them and ensure public health guidance is implemented. The entire university community has been part of this planning process in every institution, up and down the country.

“Universities were immensely proud to support the NHS, community health and the testing and research programmes from the beginning of the pandemic. Our staff and students were an integral part of that national effort. As a university community, we all feel a responsibility to follow the public health guidance and continue to protect and support each other and the wider communities of which we are part.”

Sir Paul Grice, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, added:

“It’s vital that our university communities continue to look out for each other in these challenging times. We’re proud to be working alongside Universities Scotland and the other higher education institutions across the country to provide this message of reassurance and are delighted to be welcoming both new and returning students to campus this week.

“At Queen Margaret University, we have an extensive set of safety measures in place to ensure the wellbeing of everyone within our University community while on campus; there’s a one-way system in operation throughout our main circulation areas, temperature checks upon entering and hand sanitising stations placed around the building. Occupancy restrictions apply in all classrooms and meeting rooms, and these will be cleaned each time after use. The wearing of face coverings is also required when moving around campus and when inside our Library and Resource Centre, and new signage is in place to advise on the safe flow of students and staff through our buildings.”

Revised guidance for universities and colleges was published by the Scottish Government last week. This covers 2m physical distancing, enhanced hygiene protocols, use of face coverings and maximum group size for teaching. This guidance will be followed meticulously by universities. Institutions are also taking a range of additional precautions, as appropriate to each university context, student and subject mix. Examples include:

· COVID-19 has featured prominently in university induction materials for new and returning students. 75% of institutions have chosen to make public health information and/or behavioural expectations a pre-requisite for competition of the student registration process.

· 68% of institutions have developed a pledge or charter with their staff and/or student community to cover institutional and individual COVID-safe behaviours and responsibilities.

· University teaching and study spaces have been configured to support 2m physical distancing, meaning significantly reduced occupancy (as low as 20-25%) in buildings and across the university estate.

· 93% of universities have made university accommodation available to students arriving from outside the UK or hotspots across the UK for two weeks ahead of the start of term. This allows for a safe quarantine, supported by the university. Of those providing this, 79% are doing so for on a no-cost basis to make it an affordable and inclusive option.

· Universities have made extensive use of technology to track staff and student movement on and around campus thereby supporting Scotland’s Test and Protect contact tracing scheme. This includes the use of SafeZone apps, QR codes, existing digital/smart ID swipe cards etc. Staff and students are being encouraged to download and install the Protect Scotland app.

· Universities are working with Scottish Government and local NHS Boards to create multiple new, walk-through testing sites, to support accessible testing locations to be used by students and the wider community.

· Staff unions and student associations have been involved in the planning and preparations for the academic year at 100% of responding institutions.

The statement by the Principals and Vice Chancellors of Scotland’s universities and higher education institutions reads:

We are so pleased to be able to welcome every student, new or returning, to our universities. It is so important that you have the chance to continue your education and to take the next positive step into your future. We want you to receive the best possible education and to offer you a supportive and engaging student experience this year but our top priority as universities, in the midst of a pandemic, is to keep you and our staff safe and to contribute to keeping everyone else in our towns and cities, across Scotland as safe as possible.

This is a shared responsibility. We’re still battling a pandemic. We all have an important part to play in supressing transmission of the virus. Students have shown incredible solidarity in fight against the pandemic and support for the most vulnerable. Students in health disciplines were amongst the first to offer to work on the NHS frontline, students made PPE when stocks were in short supply and volunteered in many community settings.

We need the whole university community to continue to look out for each other, and for the wider community, in the every-day actions we take as we start a new academic year.

Staff in universities have worked incredibly hard from the early summer to plan for the new semester and adapt our approaches to teaching and our campuses to keep you safe. We will offer you the expertise of our teachers, researchers and student services through a mix of flexible and accessible routes. Student Associations and the sabbatical teams have been a valued partner in putting these plans in place and we’re very grateful for their energy and commitment.

Campuses will look and feel different this term. With a blended approach to teaching in the first semester, there will be fewer people on campus than usual and our spaces will be reconfigured to support physical distancing, enhanced hygiene protocols and the use of tech to support NHS Scotland’s Test and Protect contact tracing system. Students can support this further by downloading the NHS Scotland Protect Scotland contact tracing app.

As universities, we will continue to work tirelessly to deliver on our responsibilities to you, as our students, and to the wider communities we are proud to be a part of. We will continue to work closely with the Scottish Government and public health bodies to ensure we adhere to the latest guidance as needed.

As students, we ask you to recognise the important role and responsibility that you have, on and off-campus, to keep yourself, and the wider communities around you, safe from coronavirus. Please prioritise public health so we can ensure that the new academic year is a safe and satisfying experience for everyone.

Notes to Editor

For further media enquiries, please contact Gavin McNee (Media Relations and Content Officer) at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh, E:, T: 0131 474 0000.

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