What Your University Needs to Know About Student Accommodation During the Current Crisis

Given the coronavirus crisiswhat challenges are universities facing when welcoming students into accommodation? 

Health experts have repeatedly confirmed that the risk of transmitting the coronavirus is much greater with indoor, in-person contact.  

This makes the return to traditional university life particularly challenging for institutions to manage. 

While previous years saw new and returning students attend busy introductory weeks, activity fairs, and social events, this year looks very different.  

To limit the numbers of students on campus, many institutions have opted for a blended approach to learning, with teaching taking place both online and in-person, as well as transferring in-person events to virtual space. 

However, living in student accommodation still remains an option for many students, with the hope that this will give them a more traditional university experience.  

Yet with large numbers of students living in the same building and spending a significant amount of time in close proximity, university accommodation creates a particularly problematic situation. 

In the UK, there have been multiple reports of students being welcomed into university accommodation, only to be told that they must self-isolate after coronavirus cases were detected.  

At a university in Manchester, for example, around 1,700 students were told to self-isolate after 127 students received positive coronavirus test results.  

A similar situation is taking place in the US with The New York Times releasing aepisode of their podcast, The Daily, to explore cases of students being asked to quarantine on campus.  

In an interview with Zoie Terry, a sophomore at a university in Alabama, the episode revealed how students were being forced to quarantine in inadequate accommodation after they had tested positive for the virus.  

Terry told the interviewer that she was moved into a room with limited resources, as well as there being no nurse or security guard to assist her on arrival. 

Being “alone to fend for herself,” Terry began experiencing panic attacks, and had to make regular calls to her mother and sister to maintain her well-being during her time in isolation. 

While it should be acknowledged that universities are facing a unique and challenging situation, the various reports reveal that improvements must be made to the management of students in accommodation during the coronavirus pandemic.  

There are several steps universities can take to better protect students in accommodation, with the ultimate aim of preventing and managing outbreaks better.  

One of the most crucial steps a university can take in the current situation is to improve the support they provide students in accommodation 

Safeguarding the mental and physical health of students is paramount during this difficult period, particularly those being asked to self-isolate, as this requires them to spend large amounts of time on their own in an unfamiliar environment. 

In response to Zoie Terry’s experience in quarantine, the institution made improvements to its management of positive cases among students in accommodation. 

In a statement they said: “For our students who test positive and prepare to move to campus isolation spaces, staffing and medical resources have been enhanced to ensure prompt communication and expanded services.” 

Given the unprecedented situation that universities are trying to manage, it’s crucial that they continuously evolve their approach, utilizing student feedback to provide better support to students.   

There are several universities who are utilizing testing services to prevent outbreaks of coronavirus among staff and students.  

The University of Cambridge recently announced their COVID-19 screening program; a plan to “screen all undergraduate and postgraduate students living in college accommodation.” 

The university acknowledges that “the risk of outbreaks is expected to be higher in college accommodation, where the density of students and potential for interactions are greater.” 

The testing process begun on October 5 and will be repeated every week or two weeks as the term progresses.  

Due to the coronavirus’ delayed response, testing university students before arrival and during their stay in university accommodation is not a watertight solution, but it can help to prevent large-scale transmission at institutions. 

Ultimately, while returning to student accommodation may be the first choice for many students, universities have a responsibility to protect them in the process.  

Establishing a high-quality online learning program will give university students the choice as to whether they wish to live in student accommodation or study remotely until the coronavirus crisis is under control.  

For more information on how higher education students are responding to the coronavirus pandemic, please see our latest report: COVID-19 in Higher Education: How Current and Prospective Students are Adapting. 

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