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COVID-19: Guidance for students in Scotland -updated 1 October

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Outbreaks of COVID-19 have been reported in student halls of residence across the country since students returned to campuses earlier this month. In a fast-moving situation, this blog looks at the latest guidance for students, universities and colleges, with a particular focus on accommodation. The information is correct as at 1 October.

Links to organisations that can offer further support for students in areas including mental health and wellbeing are also provided.

Scottish Government guidance on managing the return to campus

Over half a million students study at Scotland’s colleges (270,104 students) and universities (253,475 students). Around 45,000 of these students stay in halls of residence. Managing the return to further and higher education during a global pandemic has proved to be a challenging task.

Over the summer, the Scottish Government published guidance for universities and colleges around the return of staff and students to university and college campuses. This guidance has been updated since then, with the most recent update on 24 September reflecting new regulations stopping indoor house visits from Wednesday 23 September and introducing a closing time of 10pm for bars and restaurants from Friday 25 September.

The Scottish Government guidance states:

  • Two or more linked cases of COVID-19 – confirmed or suspected – within 14 days should be treated as a suspected outbreak. Providers should inform their local Health Protection team immediately.
  • Anyone with symptoms should self-isolate and book a test. In the event of a positive test, Test and Protect will contact newly confirmed cases to confirm their details, issue advice and identify close contacts. Close contacts will be supported to self-isolate.
  • Those who share accommodation (e.g. live in the same flat) or share a kitchen or bathroom will be defined as a ‘household contact’ for Test and Protect contact tracking purposes.

In the run up to students returning to campus, university Principals released a statement to all students, highlighting public health measures and plans for blended learning and asking students to download NHS Scotland’s Protect Scotland app.

On Thursday 24 September, as outbreaks of COVID-19 were reported at university campuses across the country, Universities Scotland issued a further statement detailing measures agreed by all universities. These included reminding students not to socialise outside of household groups, asking students not to go to bars or restaurants over the weekend of 25 – 27 September and the potential of disciplinary action where actions put others at risk.

On 25 September, Universities Scotland released an FAQs document providing further clarification of the measures. This followed concerns from the National Union of Students (NUS) Scotland and University and College Union (UCU) Scotland that the measures went further than public health guidance. The Children and Young People’s Commissioner has also since highlighted concerns with the 24 September statement.

In light of concerns, the Scottish Government also committed to look again at the guidance around students visiting home. Further information on this is provided in the next section of the blog.

On developing the approach to testing on campus, during a statement to Parliament on 30 September the Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science stated:

“We remain mindful of clinical advice about the limitations of asymptomatic testing and the need to prioritise our testing capacity, in line with our testing strategy. However, we are exploring the merits of some targeted surveillance testing that is focused on individual institutions to understand the level of asymptomatic cases.”

Minister for Further Education, Higher Education and Science, Richard Lochhead, 30 September 2020

The Minister also stated there had been “no evidence to date” of virus transmission in an HE or FE teaching setting and that accommodation providers have a duty of care for their students.

Also on 30 September, Universities Scotland outlined further support measures universities will take, including regular check-ins on those self-isolating and assistance with food and laundry provision.

Further Scottish Government guidance on visits home

On Sunday 27 September, the Scottish Government published ‘Student accommodation – guidance on visits home’. This guidance supersedes a previous statement from NHS Scotland National Clinical Director Jason Leitch that students in halls and flats should not return to their parents’ or carers’ homes. NUS Scotland said the new guidance “provides welcome clarity to students in halls”.

In line with the guidance for the general population, the new guidance for students states those living in student accommodation can meet with up to one other household, up to a maximum of six people, outdoors or in a public indoor space such as a café or restaurant. They cannot meet indoors in a private home and therefore cannot stay overnight with their family.

There are exceptions in the guidance for students returning home for wellbeing reasons or for family emergencies such as a bereavement.

Students wishing to return home while self-isolating are asked to first contact their college, university or student accommodation provider to discuss support available to self-isolate. On the issue of whether students can return home, the First Minister has said students should stay within their student accommodation where possible.

However, the First Minister recognised some students may need additional support, for example for physical, mental or financial reasons, adding:

“If that is the case, then you are allowed to move to another household to complete your self-isolation period. However I would caution that that is not a decision to be taken lightly.”

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, 28 September 2020

Those who decide to return home because they require additional support and care must follow guidance on self-isolating, are asked not to use public transport and to contact their accommodation provider for guidance on being safely collected by a friend, family member or other supportive person.

Following a student’s arrival, the household the student is moving in with should also self-isolate.

The Scottish Government has indicated that the approach to students returning home over the festive break in December is being considered and guidance will be updated in due course.

Tenancy agreements

The Coronavirus (Scotland) (No. 2) Act 2020 introduced notice to leave periods for students residing in halls of residence and Purpose-Built Student Accommodation (PBSA). Following this legislation, students can now terminate their student accommodation tenancy by giving seven days’ notice if they have already entered into a student residential tenancy agreement and 28 days’ notice if they have entered into an agreement but not yet occupied the property. Students can only terminate tenancies for reasons relating to COVID-19 and these provisions are only in place while the Act is in force.

NUS Scotland continues to call for full refunds for students who wish to end their accommodation contracts and return home.

Further Support

Students and their parents and carers can contact their university or university students’ association for advice and support. The Student Information Scotland health and wellbeing page has links to student support services at each college and university, along with contact information for a range of other useful organisations.

Citizens Advice Scotland’s website also lists links to mental health support and advice services and resources.

Lynne Currie, Senior Education Researcher, SPICe