The government should consider a “targeted vaccination approach for the student age cohort” in response to the threat of the Delta variant, the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) has said.
THEA and the Irish Universities Association (IUA) will today attend a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Higher Education about the return of students to college campuses in September in the context of the pandemic.
Last month, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said that college re-opening plans will go ahead, even if some students are not vaccinated by September.
In a submission to the committee, seen by The University Times, THEA CEO Joseph Ryan said that THEA has “advocated the retention of the vaccination infrastructure in or near our institutes into August and September to facilitate staff and students who have not yet had an invitation to accept the vaccine”.
“In addition, and keenly conscious of the modelling in relation to the Delta variant, THEA has suggested there is merit in early exploration of a targeted vaccination approach for the student age cohort”, he added.
“I fully appreciate it is a major step and involves considerations outside of education but given the predictable movement of so many in the age cohort of greatest risk and in a short time frame, it would undoubtedly support the government’s stated ambition in respect of reopening further and higher education.”
Trinity is to become one of four Irish universities piloting a coronavirus antigen testing programme over the summer, with the hopes that such tests can be widely used on college campuses for the next academic year.
It is hoped that the tests being piloted will be suitable for widespread use on college campuses to quickly identify cases of coronavirus, enabling universities to return to in-person teaching to some extent.
Harris had said earlier in the year that rapid antigen testing would allow students to return to in-person activities after the summer.
At the time Harris also said that he is “determined to in line with that report to roll out a number of pilots across university campuses, college campuses and particularly in student accommodation”.
Chair of the Irish Universities Association and President of NUI Galway, Prof Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh said in a submission to the committee that he encouraged the government to refer to the beginning of the new academic year as a “return to campus” as opposed to a re-opening.
“Our universities have remained open throughout the pandemic, with significant contributions to research, public health and the continuity of engagement with our students, albeit that much of our activity has had to be carried out remotely”, he said.
Ó hÓgartaigh said that “the expectation that the majority of the adult population, including third level students, will have been vaccinated by September lays the foundation for our return to campus plans with the maximum possible student levels”.
“We share the ambition of students, staff and government to safely re-instate face-to-face teaching and research activities on campus”, he added.
“Re-adjusting timetables in our universities with campus populations of from 15,000 to 30,000 covering hundreds of courses and thousands of modules is a complex process.”
“In doing so, all universities have a reserve plan in place in the event that greater levels of restrictions are required by public health guidelines than that currently anticipated.”
He added that “the provision of larger scale lectures is achievable only in a very different public health environment, it is hoped that, contingent on the benefit of mass vaccination, this environment is achievable in autumn 2021″.