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Covid: Some students not back until February next term

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News family and education correspondent

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  • Coronavirus pandemic
image copyrightReuters
image captionStudents have been taking Covid tests this week ahead of leaving for Christmas

Students will have staggered starting dates for returning to universities in England after Christmas - with some not back until 7 February.

The government's plan will mean students taking hands-on courses such as medicine or performing arts returning from 4 to 18 January.

Other subjects would be taught online at the start of term, with students back between 25 January and 7 February.

Students are being promised Covid tests when they return next term.

It means some students heading home in the next few days will not be in university again for nine weeks.

The National Union of Students said students would still have to pay rent on "properties they are being told not to live in".

Hands-on courses

The plan, to avoid a surge of students and the risk of spreading coronavirus, will see a staggered return for students over five weeks in the new year - with most courses starting online before a return to in-person teaching.

  • Mass testing for students gets underway in universities
  • Two Covid tests for students and then leave in 24 hours
  • Testing for Christmas holidays to start from 30 November

The first students returning will be for practical courses which are difficult to teach solely online - which will include medicine, nursing and dentistry; sciences which need to use laboratories; or music, dance and drama.

image copyrightJoe Giddens
image captionCourses are going to be online at the start of next term for many students

Those starting later will include subjects such as English literature, history and maths.

Students will be offered two lateral-flow Covid tests when they arrive back - similar to the process for their departure.

"This plan will enable a safer return for all students," Universities Minister Michelle Donelan said, who also announced a £20m student hardship fund.

The UCU lecturers' union, which has called for teaching to be online to avoid the spread of infection, said the plan for a delayed start to in-person teaching was a "step forward".

Vanessa Wilson, leader of the University Alliance group, welcomed the "clarity" about next term - and also the recognition that campus facilities would have to be kept open for students not going home at Christmas.

Emma Hardy, Labour's shadow universities minister, said "the delay in providing this guidance has caused huge, unnecessary stress for students and universities".

Coaches and time slots for student exodus

The arrangements have been announced on the eve of students being able to return home for Christmas - with the "travel window" for students opening on Thursday.

image captionLouis will be part of the logistical challenge to get students home this week

Louis Chambers, a first year studying geology at the University of Hull, will be among the students heading home this week.

HIs parents are coming to take him back to Norfolk - and the university is running a system of one-hour slots for students to be collected, which he says will mean "not so many leaving at once".

"It will be a relief to get back home," he says, as he has been able to see his family only once this term, because of Covid restrictions.

But he thinks the Covid testing and "travel window" have been uncomplicated so far - and he has enjoyed his first term.

And many students will already have left. Out of the six in Louis's flat, he says, three have already gone home.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionThe "window" for students to travel home begins on Thursday

University of Hull student services director Anji Gardiner has been organising the staggered departures through the Christmas "travel window".

As well as slots for those being collected by car - which run from 07:00 to 20:00 - there are coaches being laid on and a booking system for the limited capacity on trains, with the numbers travelling spread out across the week.

"We want to keep it safe - we didn't want a logjam of people trying to get home," Dr Gardiner says.

Mass testing before Christmas

The mass Covid testing of students began in universities on Monday - with temporary testing centres set up in sports halls and in rooms on campus.

image copyrightJane Barlow

Before leaving for Christmas, students have been encouraged to have two tests three days apart - and to travel within 24 hours of receiving a second negative test result.

The "travel window", in which students are expected to move out of university, will run from 3 to 9 December.

In England, about 1.2 million students will be travelling from a university to a home address in another part of the country, including:

  • 235,000 leaving the South East
  • 217,000 leaving London
  • 126,000 leaving the East Midlands
  • 122,000 leaving the West Midlands
  • 119,000 leaving the North West
  • 110,000 leaving the South West
  • 88,000 leaving the East
  • 64,000 leaving the North East

Universities UK welcomed the plans for more testing for students when they returned after Christmas.

"The high demand for tests from students shows they understand the important role testing can play in keeping themselves and their communities safe," said a spokesman.

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