University students may be able to go back to campus in March as the government plans a phased return to schools and higher education.
According to an interview by The Tab with universities minister Michelle Donelan, the government will in mid-February review current data on Covid-19 and consider whether students can start to go back in March.
She said the government will be looking at death rates, infection rates and how the vaccine programme is being rolled out before making a decision, which is expected by February 22.
Those who will be given priority are final-year students on undergraduate courses or postgraduate students taking practical subjects such as performing arts or lab-based fields, the Guardian reports.
But many students may struggle to go back until the end of March, which is when many lectures effectively end as they give way to exam sessions.
The majority of university students in England have been told to stay at home and not return to campus under the latest lockdown.
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“Our number one priority will be getting students back as quickly as possible. It is the same road map as the one that is being laid out for schools. So, basically, on the week commencing 15th February, the government will review the situation”, Donelan told The Tab.
“From the 8th March, more students will be able to go back, should that be what we decide, and that does include higher education students.”
Some universities have already told their students face-to-face teaching is be suspended till the end of the academic year, Donelan said the government “will be giving them the option to alter those plans”.
The only students allowed in for face-to-face teaching at the moment are those on critical courses such as medical, clinical and healthcare subjects.
All other students should continue studying remotely until at least March 8.
The Department for Education says students and staff on campus “should take part in twice weekly testing on offer to help limit transmission and identify asymptomatic cases”.
It comes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said getting students back to classes would be a priority once restrictions start lifting.
He said last Wednesday: “The first sign of normality beginning to return should be pupils going back to their classrooms.”
Jo Grady, the general secretary of the University and College Union, opposed reports of a phased return in March as she told the Guardian: “The priority right now must be to keep as much teaching as possible online for the rest of the academic year, and putting staff and student safety first.
“Instead, ministers and universities seem intent on reopening campuses due to financial pressures. We need to learn the lessons of last term and prevent further outbreaks.”