The government may relax the two-metre social distancing rule in universities in the coming year, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said today.
Harris hinted at such a move in an interview with Matt Cooper on Today FM, saying: “We have asked a public health expert to work with the universities on the issue of two metres because we have been debating two metres one metre as you know in society for quite a while.”
“Two metres is the public health advice. I obviously have been the health minister – I know the importance of it – but we have seen in some settings, be it childcare, be it restaurants, pubs that serve food, we have seen other ways of sometimes being able to put other measures in place to mitigate that two metre rule.”
“I think it will be possible perhaps in some scenarios to have less than two metres subject to a public health expert being happy that this is safe for staff and safe for students”, he added.
He also said that universities were in a more fortunate situation than primary and secondary schools in relation to reopening as college rotas were more flexible and institutions had more learning spaces.
“But a very large institution with large lecture halls and lots of different rooms and the likes and the courses that tend not to be delivered on a nine to five monday to friday basis does have a flexibility that I’m sure the secondary school system would be somewhat envious of”, Harris said.
The minister added that freshers and final year students would be prioritised when it came to on-campus learning, adding, however, that blended learning would become “the norm”.
“In other words with students attending lectures, but perhaps having to attend lectures in smaller numbers or for shorter time and also some lectures still being online. That’s why we have also made available €15 million to help students with the costs of laptops, tablets, access to wifi and the likes as well.
In May, The University Times reported that Ireland’s two-metre social distancing protocols could mean Trinity is able to accommodate just 20 per cent of students for lectures on campus when it re-opens.
Vice-Provost Jurgen Barkhoff warned at University Council in May of the “challenges presented by the two metre social distancing requirements for face-to-face teaching approaches”, according to unpublished minutes seen by this newspaper.
This, Barkhoff told Council members in a discussion document on May 13th, “will result in only 20% of the student population being accommodated on campus”.
Last week, the Vice-Provost announced in an email to students that timetables will be released in mid-September ahead of the return to lectures on September 28th.
As Trinity prepares to re-open, undergraduates and postgraduates will be able to access libraries from July 20th if they “have a purpose/reason for doing so” such as studying for reassessment or carrying out research for dissertations.
Barkhoff added: “As facilities and services on campus will be limited, you should not come onto campus to socialise or for no specific purpose. The numbers of students on campus will be closely monitored.”
He said that campus will remain closed to the general public until at least September 28th, “with the aim of ensuring the potential for overcrowding is minimized and that as many students and staff as possible can safely return to college”.