College students in Ireland are set to be greeted by in-person lectures, reopened libraries and bars and reconvened student societies under plans for September.
More than 200,000 third-level students will be allowed to return to campuses from September with nearly all facilities fully open under proposals being brought to Government today, according to The Irish Times.
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris will seek approval at a Cabinet meeting for almost all education and other activities to reopen, as part of the Government’s wider Covid-19 reopening plan.
Tutorials, workshops, smaller lectures, laboratory teaching and learning, research, workplaces, libraries, canteens, sports facilities, clubs and societies and bars are all expected to reopen in all circumstances under the plan.
However, these activities will be subject to public health guidelines in relation to social distancing, maximum numbers and social protocols.
In the best-case scenario, the plan envisages the return of large-scale lectures, but says this is only achievable in a very different public health environment with much lower case numbers and very low risk levels.
It believes that this environment could be achievable by the autumn of 2021, with the benefit of mass Covid vaccination.
If the proposals are approved by Cabinet, institutions should plan on the basis that everything will return.
The plan advises third-level institutions to begin planning for larger lectures, but says modifications to ventilation and moving some larger lectures to remote learning might be required if public health advice warrants it.
Further clarity on the return of larger lectures will be subject to the outcome of a report on the latest public health data and information, due to be delivered to Mr Harris’s department next month.
A “robust vigilance system” is also recommended to support reopening in 2021, with the report also said to caution that third-level education may be doing so at a time when most students have yet to be vaccinated.
Rapid testing for Covid-19 including antigen testing, now being piloted in four universities, is expected to form part of that system to screen and monitor students.
The news has been welcomed by the Irish Universities Association (IUA), saying it will allow universities to "plan with confidence" ahead of the next academic year.
"The inclusion within the plan of a phased return to normal activity on campus over the summer months is especially welcome: this will allow research, both by staff and students and other normal on-campus summer academic activity to resume fully, and to ensure preparations are fully in place for the next academic year," a statement from the IUA said.
Chair of the association and president of NUI Galway, Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh said safety has always been paramount for universities, and they will continue to work closely with Government to ensure that remains the case.
"By learning from the experiences of our students, our staff and our stakeholders, by listening to their voices and by adhering to the advice of our public health experts, our aim is for a return to a safe on-campus education which is as normal and fulfilling as possible in the context of Covid-19," Prof Ó hÓgartaig added.