Universities in Edinburgh reveal plans for teaching and reducing Covid-19 risk in student halls - including 'household bubbles' - as public health expert highlights 'difficulties'

Universities in Edinburgh have been making safety preparations for student accommodation, teaching and reopening libraries when students arrive to start their courses next month amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

By Jamie McKenzie
Tuesday, 18th August 2020, 4:45 pm

A blend of live classes and online learning will be used to deliver courses across three institutions - Edinburgh, Heriot-Watt and Napier - that we spoke with and libraries will operate in a limited way in line with government guidance. Strict social distancing and hygiene measures will be introduced in student halls and catered areas too.

Household 'bubbles' will also be created in residences at Heriot-Watt and Napier.

Professor of Public Health at Edinburgh University, Linda Bauld, has been working with universities across Scotland to ensure infection risk is minimised in student accommodation buildings but says it will be "difficult" to maintain this.

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She says physical distancing will be required in common room and kitchen areas, with people being urged to use their own dishes and cutlery, and that those in shared accommodation will be able to create "bubbles." She says building ventilation will also be important to maintaining air flow to minimise transmission risk indoors, an issue highlighted in a recent Academy of Medical Sciences report.

Student accommodation

Key measures being introduced at Edinburgh University include increased cleaning of "high touch points" with physical distancing in public areas such as common rooms and kitchens, with signs in place.

Staggered arrival times will also be introduced for students next month, rather than everyone arriving over a two day period, to facilitate social distancing.

Pollock Halls sits at the foot of Edinburgh's Holyrood Park and Arthurs Seat. Picture: Contributed

Several changes have been made to catering areas including reduced contact points, protective screens at tills, a one-way system, reduced seating capacity to enable distancing and increased opening times, with hand sanitisers at key points including at the entrance, exit and touch points like drink machines.

All crockery will be fully sanitised and students will be provided with their own cutlery to keep and bring to each meal. Kitchen staff will be given full PPE and training and all catering areas will be deep cleaned prior to opening with increased frequency of cleaning routines.

Support will be available for anyone who needs to self-isolate, including meal deliveries.

At Heriot-Watt University, social distancing protocols will be introduced in public spaces like retail and catering outlets, and an 'order ahead' system will be used to allow people to book times to collect food and limit queues.

Professor of Public Health at Edinburgh University, Linda Bauld.

Their residences allow students to be grouped as 'households' with up to five students in each. It means students within a household are able to behave in the same way as a typical household and can be within two metres of each other - but they must maintain social distancing from other students.

Napier University will also be adopting the 'household' approach with students in flats able to mix with each other - but a common sense approach is advised and people are urged to be respectful towards others.

Hand sanitiser stations will be stationed throughout Napier's accommodation buildings and the university does not have any communal canteens as they have no catered accommodation.


An Edinburgh University spokesperson said the university will be ready to teach at the start of the new academic year and do not anticipate any delays to degree programmes, and they aim to stay connected as a student community despite any travel restrictions.

The spokesperson said a "large majority" of the lectures will be delivered digitally but the hope is to offer face-to-face reaching in the likes of seminars, tutorials and laboratory work.

Professor Bauld says medical and veterinary students are examples of those who will need this kind of direct teaching.

Libraries at all three universities we spoke to will use a 'click and collect' service for students while complying with two metre social distancing rules and strict hygiene measures.

The Edinburgh University library service will also be using a 'find a space' app to allow students to pre-book study space. A wealth of resources will also be available online including ebooks, journals, scanned books and chapters, subject guides and exam papers.

The spokesperson said there will be online welcome and induction activities for those unable to arrive in Edinburgh in September, as well as a Global Buddies peer support programme to help new international students with the transition into a new academic and cultural environment.

At Heriot-Watt, all teaching programmes will be available online so that any student who is unable to attend on campus will not miss out. Some classes do have essential components of practical teaching, available from the start of the session, but these can be rescheduled if required - and there will be online equivalent materials available.

Both the library and study spaces will be open for safe working with two metre distancing, with signs in place and a requirement to wear face coverings in line with government guidance.

At Napier, teaching programmes will be a combination of live classes and recorded learning activities and will be accessible remotely. Changes on campus will include signs, one way systems, protective screening and video messaging.

The timetabling team are working to accommodate teaching requirements while complying with social distancing guidelines and some offices used by professional support staff will also be used as teaching rooms.

Facemasks, while not mandatory on campus, have been ordered and will be made available to staff and students with appropriate guidance.

Libraries at Napier plan to open from the start of term between 8:45am and 5pm with limited staff at all sites, with 24 hour access to study space and PC/Macs at Merchiston campus only. An online booking system will be introduced to allow reserving a PC/desk space but less computers available than pre-Covid.

Laptops will be made available via the university's LapSafe service in a similar way, as will access to scanners and photocopiers.

The university says it has also made more available its pre-existing postal loan service for those who can not come into campus, such as vulnerable groups or people with mobility issues.

All three universities were asked how they think Covid-19 will impact the number of students choosing to live in the Capital from the start of the academic year but it remains unclear at this stage with timetabling still to be finalised.

However, a spokesperson for Edinburgh University did say student accommodation applications and acceptance numbers are "broadly in line" with those in previous years.

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