Extensive and essential student supports must be put in place by Government and institutions and a focus put on online teaching and learning in order to provide clarity for the rest of this semester, according to the Union of Students in Ireland.

Having consulted USI’s member organisations and considered an independent report carried out in the UK on COVID-19 outbreaks among students there, USI says a decision needs to be made to keep college learning online – except for courses that necessitate in person delivery – while ensuring students are properly supported.

USI President, Lorna Fitzpatrick explained that students and the rest of the third-level sector cannot continue to get information on such a short-term basis.

Lorna said: “We were extremely concerned when the announcement to have teaching and learning take place online at the start of the term was made late on Friday afternoon when colleges were set to open up on the Monday. That is very distressing for students and at this stage decision-making resulting in temporary two to three-week measures offers no reassurance to students or staff and puts the sector in a position of having to be reactive, rather than proactive.

“Therefore, we are calling for a decision to be made that face-to-face teaching – unless this is not possible due to the practical nature of the class or subject – will not resume until after the Christmas break. This gives institutions and Government the chance to put in place the very necessary student supports that are required.”

USI is calling for students to be offered refunds or contract releases without financial penalty should they wish to leave term-time accommodation and Government to lobby private sector providers to ensure contract releases and rent refunds are offered to students renting privately.

Campuses should also remain open to students for vital services and needs such as libraries, health centres, food provision, essential in-person teaching, and study spaces required by students.

Lorna said: “Spaces must be designated on all campuses for students to access study and to join back-to-back lectures, and robust measures must be put in place at both an institutional and national level to monitor and maintain standards. Connectivity issues should be addressed through dedicated on campus space or regional access points. Consideration of the needs of students on placement, particularly those in professionally accredited courses need to be considered as a priority, in close consultation with professional bodies and Students’ Unions.”

Other required measures include all higher-education institutions committing to establishing student experience committees focused on monitoring and enhancing the wider student experience and – supported by Government – ensuring the provision of generous supports including peer support schemes, online events and wellbeing check-ins.

Students’ Unions and clubs and societies also need to be supported by their colleges to deliver activities to connect students with one another.

The USI’s full Higher Education Delivery for Semester 1, which outlines the union’s full views and the supports that are required and been published today and is available here: HE Delivery For Semester 1 – USI