Ask every student up and down the country where they would rather be for Christmas and it is guaranteed only a handful will say ‘university’. The prospect of Christmas dinner with your flat may seem like a fun idea at first, but can it really beat pigs in blankets with the family?

After students travelled to Sheffield from all parts of the country and even the world in September, it’s no wonder cases skyrocketed amongst students. Sheffield University has recorded more than 1,000 cases and of course many more will have been made to isolate. Yet wasn’t this inevitable?

The Government could surely have seen the movement of students as a potential cause for a second wave. It begs the question of what will happen for Christmas and how can universities prepare for the return of students in semester two? If they ever go home in the first place.

This week, it was announced that there is likely to be mass testing for all university students who are travelling home to allow them to get home safely without spreading the virus. It is proposed that this will occur from 30 November to 6 December to allow time for a ‘travel window’ which will stagger the movement of students across one week. 

This is much more organised than when students travelled to university. If we had a plan like this in place before the September term, maybe the student cases would have been lower. 

Gavin Williamson has been on record saying the Government will “make sure” students can return home for Christmas, and although this was before the November lockdown was announced, this week’s proposed mass testing could be the solution to Williamson’s promise. It is without question that the Prime Minister will face real pressure from students and parents, but with the possibility of the November lockdown being extended, the situation is becoming increasingly worrying as the plans are yet to be confirmed.

It has gradually become the feeling that many will simply go home regardless of whatever rules are in place. Who can blame them? Hundreds will have had Covid-19 already and consider themselves immune and therefore think being home with family is far more important. It would be near impossible to keep students at university during Christmas anyway.

Universities just do not “have the powers nor any desire to require students to stay” during Christmas, according to Loughborough University’s Chief Operating Officer. But how can it be done safely? The suggestion of a quarantine period before travelling home has been mentioned, but this would carry challenges with regards to learning and having to shift the entirety of university online. 

With the mass testing week in early December, students are likely to have to isolate and if students test positive, they will have to isolate until a positive test. The logistics would be very difficult to manage. Not all students live away from home and a lot already have the majority of their classes online. Dr Jo Grady, General Secretary of the UCU, dubbed the earlier plans for student’s isolating before travelling home as “unworkable and chaotic” and added universities are “not boarding schools”. However, this was before the new announcement added a bit more clarity to the situation. 

Mass testing is already being trialled at Durham and De Montfort, with a one-hour test result, in the hopes this can be used nationwide in the near future. Looking at the options, this would be the most efficient way of ensuring a safe return home for students. Though the question of when these tests will take place, to ensure those who have Covid-19 can isolate, is a very important one. As you can see, there are no easy answers.

Yet there will, of course, be some individuals who either by choice or other circumstances stay at university over the festive period. It is vital that the University does not forget about these students. Some sort of plan should be drawn out to cater for those staying and to ensure their Christmas is as enjoyable as possible. 

If the plans do go ahead to allow students to go home, there should be strong preparations for their return in the second semester to prevent another rise in cases. The simplest method would be to move learning online for the first two weeks. Discouraging social gatherings with several households for the same period may also work effectively. But this is all dependent on what restrictions are in place in the new year. While it is impossible to predict the future, Christmas Day at home looks set to be in our sights.

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