Should I be expected to return to uni in September if I’m high risk and still shielding?

‘They risk alienating an entire vulnerable group’

As students come to learn how their university is addressing the coronavirus pandemic, whether that’s varying periods of online learning or Freshers’ Week being substituted for safer activities, a significant question mark remains above the heads of many students that are shielding due to underlying illnesses. The fact is that this virus easily puts some students at an automatic disadvantage to others.

What can the solution possibly be? Will there be some sort of infrastructure or set of rules put in place to protect the most vulnerable from contracting the virus in halls of residence and other public places on campus such as the library? Is it fair for the university not do everything in their power to assist students that are disadvantaged by their ill-health? Is online learning the only way to ensure that all students are safe?

The Tab spoke to three students who are high risk and currently shielding, about how much they’ve been told by their universities and what their plans will be in September. We also spoke to three universities – Cardiff, Oxford and Bournemouth – about how they’re preparing to help shielding students return to campus in September.

“They risk alienating an entire vulnerable group by doing this”

Sarah, who is due to go into nursing in September, had cancer last year. She believes that it’s fully up to the university to lay out the plan: “The government are busy, it’s the least that universities can do. I’m totally understanding that the situation is uncertain, but we all know it’s not going to have disappeared by September.

“I’m concerned that high-risk students are being told that, if shielding is still in place, we will not be allowed to start and declared ‘unfit for uni’, which is an absolute disgrace because I am perfectly fit and well, but it comes across as unis don’t want to deal with anyone who may have increased risk.

“At a time when unis are going to be struggling for numbers, they risk alienating an entire vulnerable group by doing this.”

“Universities can’t just wait on government advice”

Lauren has severe asthma and is due to return to university in September. She told The Tab she doesn’t think universities shouldn’t be waiting on what the government has to say to make a statement: “It is widely known that our current social distancing measures are to stay two metres apart and not have large gatherings. Although this is due to change at some point, the fact remains that people who are at high risk will need to be shielded for the significant future, regardless of what social distancing measures are in place.

“We know that the virus will still be around in September, so there needs to be further detail from universities for what they plan to do for those intending to stay in halls and use their facilities, they can’t just wait on government advice.

“The government aren’t going to make a statement on what rules high-risk students in halls of residence are going to have to follow – that responsibility is with the universities.”

“The solution is online teaching and that is all”

We spoke to Matt, a student that believes online teaching is the only way of educating the people that need to shield themselves: “It seems that the solution is online teaching and that is all. Most universities already offer online lectures and the vast majority of students prefer them to face to face teaching.

“It’s all about having an honest conversation with your doctor and seeing what the risk is and whether they’re willing to take it – all the high-risk students have free will. The universities need to make sure all students can access lectures online and they have a contact point to ask for help with the material.”

“I don’t think the solution is withdrawing someone’s offer”

Although perceivably the only failsafe option, Sarah believes that there are unavoidable problems with having high-risk students give up on the university experience in favour of online learning. She told The Tab: “This shouldn’t be hard considering that’s what they are doing at the moment. And in cases like mine where there’s a placement aspect, offering alternatives such as doing more academic work and placement catch up in another year. I don’t think the solution is withdrawing someone’s offer.

“Of course, what unis can do about helping new shielding students integrate when they can’t socialise is much harder and I don’t necessarily blame the uni for that.” Lauren emailed her university and is yet to receive a reply.

What have universities said?

The ambiguity when it comes to writing a new rulebook around the virus appears to arise from universities waiting on the government to provide clarity, despite the generally unspecific advice that has currently been issued in regards to students returning to university.

For example, a Bournemouth University spokesperson redirected us to their FAQ page when asked about what provisions they intend to put in place for shielding and high-risk students, which says: “We hope to provide some on-campus access to our libraries, open-access centres, student support and SportBU facilities, and are waiting for further government guidance to enable us to understand how we can do this subject to social distancing and other health and safety requirements in place at the time.”

They didn’t respond when asked for further clarification on high-risk students.

This sentiment was echoed by a Cardiff University spokesperson, who told The Tab: “Our plan remains to open our campus in September 2020, and we are actively working to make the campus and our student residences meet government guidelines. This work remains ongoing, but we can confirm that the health and safety of our students is our primary concern – especially those students who will be considered most at risk. We will keep students updated once our plans are finalised.”

Again, when pressed for clarification on particular rules, they restated that their “work remains ongoing”.

A university spokesperson for Oxford University gave us a similar statement that insisted they cared about the welfare of their students, but didn’t go into specifics on high-risk students.

They told The Tab: “The health, welfare and safety of students and staff is the number one priority for the University. We now have a dedicated co-ordination group working through the detailed arrangements for the next academic year, and we will share more details as soon as it is possible to do so.”

For more information about shielding, consult the government website on shielding and protecting those who are vulnerable, or contact your university directly.

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