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Guidance about higher education during the firebreak (from 6:00pm on Friday 23 October).

First published:
23 October 2020
Last updated:

Contents

Students

How does this affect my course?

Your learning can continue as planned during the firebreak period.

Universities have worked hard to enable learning to take place in a COVID-secure environment this year, based on Welsh law and Welsh Government guidance. Much has been done to change the provision of teaching and adapt to the situation so that students can undertake their studies as safely as possible throughout the pandemic.

But you should contact your university if you have any concerns. They are best placed to alleviate any concerns you may have.

Higher education institutions are responsible for the planning and delivery of their provision. Welsh Government expects universities to consider the needs of students in providing alternative and accessible formats for both teaching and assessment. Students should be able to leave with qualifications that are a fair reflection of their abilities, whilst maintaining quality and standards. No student should be disadvantaged unfairly for studying at this time.

I don’t have access to online learning. What should I do?

We understand that all higher education institutions are making sure all learners can access e-learning, for example through loaning laptops to learners who do not have facilities at home. 

You should contact your university if you have any concerns. They are best placed to alleviate any concerns and discuss how they can help support you.

Who can I gather with?

In the two weeks of the firebreak period, people in Wales, including students, will face a stricter position than has been in place immediately before the start of the firebreak.

The focus for this period is to stay at home. You cannot leave the place where you live without a reasonable excuse.

For most student the place where they are living is clear – their shared house, flat style accommodation, traditional style halls of residence, or your home if you commute to university for example.

In traditional style halls of residence, universities should have put in place arrangements whereby shared facilities (such as kitchens or bathrooms) are allocated to specific ‘contact groups’ in order, in effect, to replicate the kind of “household” that exists in “flat” style accommodation. The area allocated to your ‘contact group’ is the place where you are living. We expect that in a shared kitchen in a hall of residence, it should be made clear, for example that kitchen “A” is allocated to students on floor 1, rooms 1 to 12, kitchen B is for students on floor 2 rooms 13 to 24 and so on. The Welsh Government’s advice is that it should also be clearly communicated that facilities are for the exclusive use of those allocated to them and that no other student should be using those facilities. You should make sure you are following those rules. Clear signage should make students aware of this.

Gathering in your accommodation

You are free to interact with the students you live with, for example those in your house or flat, or those in your contact group. However, be careful to keep hygiene standards high. Wash your hands! Keeping social distance with those not in your household will help reduce the risk.

Gathering outside your accommodation

It is crucial that we limit, as much as possible, contact with other people. And during the “firebreak” period in particular the law is strict. So as a starting point you can’t leave the place where you are living without a reasonable excuse. In the circumstances where you are allowed to be away from the place where you are living, the law also requires you to have a reasonable excuse to gather with people who are not members of your household.

Reasonable excuses are limited but receiving education at a higher education institution is one of them.

The meaning of a “household” is clear for most students – for those who live in a shared house or flat, it is that house or flat. In traditional style halls of residence the position is again less straightforward.

Each student living in a single room in a traditional style hall of residence is considered to be a single “household” for the purposes of the rules.

So students living in halls will not generally be allowed to gather way from the hall with anyone else.

I am living in shared accommodation – how does this affect my household/extended household?

For students living in “flat” type accommodation provided by universities, where a small number of students have bedrooms and shared facilities such as a bathroom or kitchen in a self-contained unit, the flat is the place where they are living and a student’s “household” is that flat.

Similarly for students living in a shared house, the household is made up of those living in the house.

During the ‘firebreak’ period only people who live alone (or only with children) are allowed to form an extended household. So for most students extended households are not allowed.

Students are not allowed to socialise with anyone who is not in that household. And socialising is not a reasonable excuse for leaving the place where you are living.

Social distancing is the principal way to stop the spread of the virus and everyone must obey the rules. You can be fined if you do not. You should carefully review the guidance available.

Can I still meet with people in my extended household?

As a limited exception, in the two weeks of the firebreak persons who live alone can form an extended household with one other household – so as to be treated as a single household under the rules.

For students this will generally mean that those who live in traditional style halls of residence can agree to be treated as a single (extended) household with another student who also lives in the same type of accommodation.

Both students can meet where either one of them is living and can gather away from those places without a reasonable excuse. However from a social perspective, this is of limited use because of the overarching limitation on leaving the place where you are living. In practice this will generally mean that gathering for the purposes of exercising together is the only thing that is allowed.

We know that coronavirus spreads easily when people socialise indoors. We also know that people tend not to stick to social distancing practices when they socialise. We need, therefore, to minimise close interaction by reducing the amount of socialising between groups of people.

The more people that interact the more people will spread the virus. This short firebreak is designed to help slow the transmission of COVID-19. We know that if you come into close contact with someone this is how the virus spreads. 

The Welsh Government knows that this is not what life is normally about, but sadly we don’t live in normal times.

Please help us by sticking to the rules. Please help us keep Wales safe.

My partner lives in another flat, can I still meet them indoors?

If you do not live in the same household as your partner you are not able to meet them during the firebreak period. There are limited exceptions to this but in practice they don’t apply unless you both live alone.

The Welsh Government knows that this is not what life is normally about, but sadly we don’t live in normal times.

Please help us by sticking to the rules. Please help us keep Wales safe.

I am self-isolating, how will I get my essentials?

Speak to your student support services at your university. If you haven’t already, tell them that you are self-isolating and require help. They will have processes set up to help with day-to-day essentials such as delivering food, laundry, medication and toiletries.

Your university should also support you with your wellbeing at this difficult time and may have buddy systems or other support networks that can help you.

There are also organisations that can help such as Mind Cymru and Student Space.

I am living at a term time address, can I go home?

You cannot leave the place where you are living without a reasonable excuse. This applies to everyone (including students) living in Wales for the next two weeks. There are only limited reasons why a student can go home, for example to care for a relative or on compassionate grounds.

Even if you consider that you may have a reasonable excuse, please consider very carefully whether you can delay travel or whether there is an alternative to travelling. We are asking all students living in Wales, and all our Welsh students living outside Wales, to help us keep Wales safe by not travelling between university and home unless they really have to. This is particularly important if either place is in an area where the number of cases of the virus is high. We know this is tough, but we all need to help to reduce the spread of the virus.

Returning home at this stage, increases the risk of spreading coronavirus to friends and family who may be more susceptible to catching coronavirus and becoming unwell.

You should only move between your term time address and your home address if absolutely necessary, for example for work or because of concerns about your wellbeing. Do bear this in mind when considering whether you have a reasonable excuse for travel.

You should remember that some of those at home will be at higher risk if they catch COVID-19 and our actions affect the lives of others.

The firebreak is for a short period - only 2 weeks. That may feel like a long period when you’re unable to visit family and friends, but your actions are important in stopping the spread of the virus.

Can family members visit me?

During the firebreak period, everybody needs a reasonable excuse to leave home. Social visits are not allowed.

The only exception is if you live alone and have formed an extended household. The purpose of this is to prevent loneliness, but we nevertheless encourage people to stay at home and if possible stay in contact in ways which don’t involve leaving home.

The purpose of the firebreak is to reduce the spread of the virus. If we all stick to these strict measure for a short period we hope to slow the spread of the virus enough to be able to allow us all to meet family members and friends in extended households again after the firebreak.

I am worried about my health and wellbeing and feeling very isolated?

The Welsh Government is aware that universities in Wales have a range of activities aimed at supporting students’ mental health and wellbeing, supported by funding made available by the Welsh Government.

This support should be extended to students who are experiencing anxiety and stress may wish to contact their student welfare services at their university or organisations such as Mind Cymru and Student Space.

There are also a number of national charities who may be able to help. We recognise how difficult a time this is for students and that they face unique issues.

If you are experiencing a significant exacerbation of your symptoms, contact your GP, NHS 111, your student support or someone you trust.

A reasonable excuse to travel includes access to medical services or to provide or receive care, including for your own mental health and well-being.

You should download and use the NHS COVID-19 app to protect yourself and your friends and family. The app has a number of tools to protect you, including contact tracing, local area alerts and venue check-in.

Please see guidance on the NHS COVID-19 app.

What are the travel implications? Can I leave the county/country/UK? Can I go home?

If you are living in term time accommodation you cannot leave that accommodation without a reasonable excuse. Accessing educational services is a reasonable excuse.

If you are living in term time accommodation you should not travel home unless you have a reasonable excuse. A reasonable excuse could include access to medical services or to provide or receive care. 

Travel home for a social visit during the term would not be a reasonable excuse for travelling out of the area.

Is it safe to remain at university?

Yes. Universities have worked hard to ensure that their campuses are COVID-secure. The Welsh Government has developed guidance to assist the university sector in their preparations. As autonomous bodies, universities are responsible for the provision of their courses for staff and students, and all universities in Wales have ensured that students undertook their studies as safely as possible throughout the pandemic.

The evidence is clear that remaining in your university accommodation is the safest place for you to be at the moment. Whilst there have been outbreaks of COVID-19 at universities in Wales, these have been well-managed by Public Health Wales, the local health boards and the universities.

We know clusters have been contained within university communities and have not spread to the wider community, or to those who may be more prone to poorer outcomes from COVID-19 because they have particular existing health conditions, complications or they are older.

The scientific advice has been clear that there may be outbreaks among students, as with any group in society and the measures in place are designed to keep students, staff and local communities safe. The wellbeing of our young people has been at the centre of decision-making throughout the pandemic and will continue to be so.

There is a careful balancing of the risk of any potential infections and ensuring that young people – who have faced incredible disruption during the pandemic – can continue with their education and be supported by their families, their universities and this government.

Your university will have provided clear guidance to you on how you can act responsibly and minimise risk to yourselves, your family, friends and community.

This should include guidance on following the rules on only gathering within your households, on avoiding parties, on social distancing, on getting tested if symptomatic, and on self-isolating when required.

Why were students accepted back into universities, with the threat of a second wave being imminent?

The Minister for Education has prioritised the wellbeing of young people throughout the pandemic and would not have agreed to students returning to university unless she was sure it was safe to do so. All universities in Wales submitted detailed plans about how they were going to operate in a COVID-secure way.

There is a careful balancing of the risk of any potential infections and ensuring that young people, who have faced incredible disruption during the pandemic, can continue with their education and be supported by their families, their universities and this government.

Students were asked to limit their social contact to members of their household in order to reduce the spread from any students who arrived in their accommodation with the virus.

Universities have been working closely with Public Health Wales to manage the cluster outbreaks that have inevitably occurred at universities, and contained them by asking students to self-isolate. This process has been well-managed.

Whilst the limits being placed on students and the rest of the population are leading to frustrations, we are not living in normal times and these limitations have meant that higher education students can continue with their studies.

I’m travelling to Wales from outside the UK. Can I still come?

Wales’ travel restrictions will apply to everyone living in Wales for the next two weeks. People, including students, will not be able travel to and from Wales without a reasonable excuse. 

But access to education is a reasonable excuse to travel to Wales and so is moving home. So yes you can.

Our international students are a welcome part of our communities in Wales. International students, from certain countries outside the UK will need to comply with the self-isolating requirements for their first 14 days in Wales. 

Please see the list of countries exempt from the 14 day self-isolation rules in Wales and the Coronavirus (COVID-19): travel corridors, UK Government

However, if you are travelling from countries not on the list of exempt countries, outside the UK, you will need to self-isolate for 14 days. This means students will not be able to leave the place they are staying for the first 14 days they’re in the UK (known as ‘self-isolating’). This is because it can take up to 14 days for coronavirus symptoms to appear. 

You should speak to your university as they will be able to support you in the self-isolation period.

Contact with others

Self-isolation means you should not have visitors, including friends and family, unless they are providing essential care. The only friends and family students can have contact with are those who travelled with them or the people they are staying with. The people they are with should also self-isolate.

People you travelled with

Where you travelled together with other students and you are sharing accommodation, you can continue to have contact amongst yourselves, but it is recommended that where possible social distancing should be maintained.

Will student finance be paid during the firebreak?

No changes are planned to statutory student finance support or payments. Universities would be expected to continue to provide learning.

Can I expect a refund on my fees because of the firebreak?

Universities and colleges in Wales continue to teach students through blended learning.

Students should not expect a fee refund if they are receiving adequate online learning and support. Students are urged to discuss any issues they may have with their higher education institution.

Fees are a contractual matter between student and provider and students should discuss any issues with the institution and the Office for Independent Adjudicator if that if that is necessary.

Will I be able to visit the university library?

During the two week firebreak period, online library services and click and collect for loans should be prioritised to limit in-person contact and reduce the spread of the virus. Campus libraries can remain open to students and staff for educational purposes and will continue to maintain COVID-secure measures. If your trip to the university library would amount to accessing educational services then you would have a reasonable excuse to leave your accommodation. However, we strongly encourage you to use alternatives during this two week period.

In the library, students must maintain social distancing, wear a face covering and adhere to the increased hygiene measures, such as hand washing and using your own surface wipes (or those provided) to clean the work area. Students must use the library independently and must not gather in study spaces, unless as part of an in-person, scheduled, seminar or tutorial.

Will I be able to use the study spaces on campus?

Study spaces on campus will be able to remain open, at the institution’s discretion, and will continue to maintain strict COVID-secure measures. These spaces should only be used if you do not have a suitable place to study at home, or if you are on campus and it would not be reasonable for you to return home (or the place you live in term time) between in-person teaching. Your university will need to ensure there is a booking system in place, you should contact your student services team to find out what arrangements are in place.

Students must maintain social distancing, wear a face covering and adhere to the increased hygiene measures, such as hand washing and using your own surface wipes (or those provided) to clean the work area. Students must use the study spaces independently and must not gather in study spaces.

I am a research student, will I be able to continue studying/working/carrying out my research at the university?

You will be able to continue your research in-person, and gather with others to carry-out that research if you are unable to do so from home. If you are able to carry out your research from home or without gathering with others then that is what you must do.

I am a researcher working at the university, will I be able to continue working at the university?

You should work from home if you can, but if your research work cannot be reasonably conducted from home you are able to go to the university.

I am a researcher in an ongoing research study, will I be able to continue taking part in this research?

You need a reasonable excuse to leave your home and gather with others, so this will depend on the circumstances. If you are able to carry out your research work from home or without gathering with others or it can be paused for the firebreak period, then that is what you must do.

Note for researchers: If the research participants are not being paid, and the participant’s involvement is not crucial within the two week firebreak period, we suggest that work with research participants is rescheduled until after the firebreak period.

I live in accommodation where catering is included, for example catered halls. Will I still be able to access catering services?

Catering services for catered halls can continue to provide that service, where there are no alternative facilities available to students, for example where a student has no alternative place where they can eat or prepare food. All other catering outlets on campus would need to follow the take away only model and you should take your food home to the place where you live to consume it.

I am a sports student, can I still use the sports facilities?

If your sporting activity is part of your education, such as a key component of your course required for learning or assessment, then you will be able to continue this activity in a COVID-secure manner during the scheduled in-person learning hours. This may include access to a sports performance exercise laboratory, for example.

However, you will not be able to access sports facilities for independent study or recreational purposes during the firebreak period.

You will be able to exercise outdoors as much as you need, as long as you do not do so with anyone you do not live with (up to a maximum of 6 people, for example playing football in a local park) as per the general population.

Will I be able to use the gym?

Unless use of gym facilities are a prerequisite of you course for educational purposes, you will not be able to access on campus sports facilities for recreational use. However, you are able to exercise outdoors as much as you need to as long as you follow the rules that apply to everyone in Wales.

Staff

I work in the post-16 sector, what does this mean for me?

Your employer will have risk assessed the building/s where you work and introduced procedures to ensure that your environment is COVID-secure. If necessary, you would have received a personal risk assessment or equality impact assessment specific to your personal circumstances. This may need to be reconsidered in the light of these new circumstances. If it is not safe for you to attend face to face work in university, then you should work from home.

What sort of conversation should I have with a member of my team who is worried about needing to come into work?

There are a number of models which can be used to support managers during discussions with their teams about an individual’s personal risk factors when returning to, or remaining in, the workplace. The aim is to help enable good quality conversations between managers and colleagues about any personal circumstances which may increase risk from coronavirus, and to agree any actions which need to be carried out. 'Talking with your workers about working safely during the coronavirus pandemic' is guidance from the Health and Safety Executive on how employers may approach this conversation with staff.

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