The Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) has announced that face coverings are compulsory for students and staff returning to Institutes of Technology in September. Many students will return to campuses that are quite different from those they left in March; however, THEA is the first third-level institution to implement this protective measure.

Last week the Irish Independent reported that the Institutes were sending out a “strong signal that students will be on campus for the maximum time possible but there will also be online teaching.” THEA Chair and President of Limerick Institute of Technology Professor Vincent Cunnane said that he wants students and their parents/guardians to know that students will be taken care of and that he wants to “provide them with a stimulating college experience”.

The Institutes are said to be conducting risk assessments and considering separations of 1-2 metres; class sizes and class durations are also under deliberation. Like many other universities, new students will take priority and THEA wants to ensure that they have a positive induction that incorporates face-to-face elements. To limit unnecessary interaction, “social bubbles” may also be created.

‘Social bubbles’ are strategic distancing measures which will be implemented in universities across the UK in September, according to SI News. A study by Oxford University published in Nature Human Behaviour recently found that “maintaining similarity across contacts, such as only interacting with people who live within the same neighbourhood and decreasing ties that bridge social clusters, such as occasional acquaintances” is highly effective to contain the disease.

As a result, students who live on campus will likely board with those doing the same course and one-way systems will be applied to prevent close contact with others while crossing campus. UK universities will also adopt ‘hybrid learning’ by blending physical and online classes and virtual events will replace occasions such as Freshers Week in an attempt to maintain a sense of community. 

It appears that ‘hybrid learning’ will become the new normal for Irish universities too as The University Times reported that Trinity campus can now only hold 20% of its student population. UCD will supposedly employ a ‘flipped classroom’ approach with lectures being live-streamed or pre-recorded. This is to comply with the ‘Draft Planning Framework for Teaching, Learning, and Assessment during Autumn Trimester 2020’ which states that “physical mixing between students from different cohorts will be minimized”.

Last month The College Tribune reported that UCD must have the capacity to contact trace and therefore “no campus activities requiring more than 50 people to be simultaneously present in the same room will be undertaken until public health guidelines allow.” Subsequently, core modules will be mainly held on campus and other modules will be delivered at a distance wherever possible. 

When asked whether UCD will implement the same measures as the Institutes of Technology, the university said that “UCD will continue to follow public health guidelines in relation to all aspects of health and safety relating to the COVID-19 pandemic. This includes following guidelines on social distancing, public gatherings, hygiene practices, and the wearing of face masks.” 

Emma Hanrahan – Reporter