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Universities seek to remain open while keeping virus at bay

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Christmas is coming early this year for students at Indiana University in the US, who will be tested for coronavirus, go home for the Thanksgiving holiday and then not return to campus until the start of 2021.

In-person teaching will end and any students who test positive will be kept at university to avoid them infecting relatives. “Testing will be the key . . . and then we will be teaching completely online until the next semester, when we will test them on return,” said Michael McRobbie, the institution’s president.

The approach, which relies on private testing, is one of many being adopted in educational institutions around the world as administrators struggle to balance limited understanding of the infection, uncertain guidance and squeezed resources with a desire for safety while maintaining operations as fully as possible. In countries such as the UK, officials are unveiling plans for large-scale testing ahead of students travelling home for the festive period.

While institutions across much of Asia — where Covid-19 cases are more under control — are stepping up face-to-face teaching, their counterparts in Europe and North America are introducing tougher restrictions as infections surge and governments impose national lockdowns.

They face lack of clear scientific consensus or advice from public health agencies on how best to respond and different levels of support for testing. “There is a lack of guidelines. Each university has its own protocol and there has been lots of trial and error,” said Santiago Iñiguez De Onzoño, president of IE business school in Madrid, which conducts regular tests and temperature checks on students.

In the UK, the University and College Union of academics and non-teaching staff is suing to push campuses to move entirely to online learning to reduce infection risks. But fresh government guidance supports continued face-to-face lessons when possible — an approach supported by some students and academics, who argue it provides better quality education.

Student work spaces separated by partitions in the library at the New York University Shanghai campus © Yan Cong/Bloomberg
A student who tested positive for Covid-19 self isolates with flatmates at a student residence in Glasgow © Andy Buchanan/AFP via Getty

“For most of us learning is a social thing — we want to learn alongside other people,” said Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute think-tank.

“Academics like, in general, being in the presence of the people they’re educating . . . and although you can do good online learning, face to face remains students’ first preference. Nobody made them come back but they wanted to.”

The evidence on the risks of in-person study is mixed. While significant outbreaks have happened on campuses, that partly reflects the higher levels of testing taking place at some universities compared with the wider community.

The virus has also spread more broadly among people in their teens and twenties than in other age groups, regardless of whether they are students. Most transmission appears to be taking place in bars, clubs and at parties, not in classrooms. And for the vast number in that age group, the severity of infections is also low.

“Transmissions are happening at the margins of the campus,” said Paul Greatrix, registrar at Nottingham University, which had a large outbreak this term. “Teaching spaces are as Covid-secure as they can be. It’s really tough — we cannot lock people down. It’s very difficult to police, and off campus it’s next to impossible.”

A student bar in Columbia, South Carolina. Most transmission takes place in bars, clubs and at parties, not in classrooms © Sean Rayford/Getty
Students in Rome socially distance as a precaution against Covid-19 © Cecilia Fabiano/AP

Efforts to control extracurricular student activities are even more difficult for non-residential colleges, where people typically study close to home and live with their families or in private rented accommodation.

Martin Andersen, a health economist at the University of North Carolina, says one difficulty for researchers is a lack of data. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is not providing systematic test results from universities. “We’re stuck piecing together information from crowdsourced systems,” he said.

But he has studied test results in census districts close to some campuses that show the “scary outcome” of spread from students — notably those from other areas of the country with high transmission rates — when they arrive on campus and then pass the virus into surrounding neighbourhoods.

Students wait for the train to go to university during rush hour in Barcelona © Emilio Morenatti/AP
A Hungarian university student attends an online lesson in Budapest © Szilard Koszticsak/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

“CDC has been less than useless” in sharing data on university transmission, according to David Paltiel, a professor at Yale School of Public Health, but wider studies have revealed the significant role of young people — often without symptoms — in spreading coronavirus.

His research argues for widespread, frequent rapid testing on campuses, and isolation of infected students. But while some colleges such as Harvard have the funding or laboratory facilities to oversee ambitious testing programmes, “a large number of schools have been given a free pass and [done] nothing”.

In the UK, Hannah Christensen at Bristol Medical School said the data suggested that students do have more contacts with others than those of the same age group not attending university, so present a greater transmission risk.

She argued in a study modelling different outcomes that onwards transmission to family members is likely unless universities introduce a mix of reduced face-to-face teaching, limiting student mixing and enhanced testing.

But, like other researchers, she said she was opposed to shutting down campuses. “On balance, I think a university experience is really important for students. For some, studying at home is not an option: they don’t have the home life or the infrastructure to support good learning.”

But the coming Christmas period presents a huge challenge for university officials. For Prof Paltiel, that means intensifying testing and isolation for students in the coming weeks. “The last thing we want is to be sending little ticking timebombs home for Thanksgiving,” he said.



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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus

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EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.



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Britain’s wrong-headed approach to refugees

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UK immigration updates

Thanks to the bravery of volunteers who run towards storms at sea to rescue ships’ crews, few British institutions command as much respect as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The charity, however, has recently had to negotiate a different kind of storm, over its efforts to help refugees who get into difficulties crossing the Channel from France. Nigel Farage, the former Brexit party leader, accused it of running a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs. Last week, the RNLI said it had received hundreds of thousands of pounds of extra donations in response.

The RNLI has become embroiled in a now familiar story when the summer months allow more small boats to make the Channel crossing. Compared with the flows to other countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, only a handful of migrants attempt the journey. That makes the UK’s inability to control the border in an effective and humane way — and shabby treatment of those who do make it across — no less of a scandal.

Britain’s strategy for stemming the flow has relied mostly on paying the French authorities to limit the number of boats crossing and return any that leave to France, while deterring would-be migrants through the unwelcoming environment that awaits them. Just as EU countries are dependent on their neighbours for keeping entrants down — whether Morocco for Spain or Belarus for Lithuania — the UK needs French co-operation to control the mutual border. Diplomatic spats, whether over Brexit or extra Covid quarantine restrictions on arrivals from France, have made that harder.

The UK approach manages to be simultaneously ineffective and cruel. Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, wrote last week to home secretary Priti Patel to complain of unacceptable conditions in the holding facility for migrants who make it to the Kent coast. A recent unannounced visit by MPs found most of those remaining in the overcrowded facility sitting on a thin mattress on the floor, with women and children in the same room as adult men.

Earlier this year, the High Court ruled that “squalid” conditions in the Napier Barracks, a temporary centre set up last year to house asylum seekers during the pandemic, were so bad as to be unlawful. While arrivals have declined since the peak seven years ago, cutbacks have led to a backlog in processing claims, leaving more in a legal limbo.

Since the start of the pandemic Britain has shut down other paths into the country, ending a resettlement scheme. This has ceded the ground to people traffickers. The “push factors” of the risk of violence and torture at home and “pull factors” of higher living standards mean many are still willing to resort to risky and illegal methods to try to reach the UK. Creating a harsh environment for those who make it has done little to dispel the widespread belief among migrants that Britain is a better destination than other European countries, and stem the flow.

That will not stop the government trying. Barristers have warned that a clause in draft border legislation could potentially make it a crime to help asylum seekers arrive in the UK, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; at present it is illegal to do so to earn a profit. The Home Office says the clause is aimed at criminal traffickers. But along with a suggestion to set up offshore processing centres, the provision has rightly earned criticism from human rights groups. If the government is unwilling to create safe and legal routes, its only option is to prevent people from coming in the first place. That, ultimately, will mean relying on France.



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Olympic organisers investigate after Belarusian runner seeks refuge

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Tokyo Olympics updates

A Belarusian runner due to compete at the Tokyo Olympics was taken to the airport against her wishes after making complaints about her coaches, according to media reports on Sunday night.

The International Olympic Committee, the Games organisers, said it had asked for clarification from the Belarus team about the status and whereabouts of Krystina Tsimanouskaya, who is due to compete in the women’s 200m sprint on Monday.

Belarus’ dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko and his regime are widely seen as international pariahs after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then embarked on a brutal campaign to suppress protesters and supporters of his rival, which has seen thousands beaten and jailed. 

Images and video circulated on social media sites by Belarusian opposition activists appear to show Tsimanouskaya at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where she refused to board a plane and instead sought refuge with Japanese police.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya took part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed qualifying for the semi-finals © Aleksandra Szmigiel/Reuters

The IOC said it “has seen the reports in the media, is looking into it and has asked the [Belarus] national Olympic committee for clarification”.

Japanese police did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Belarusian Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a statement attributed to the body suggests she had been removed from competition by coaches on the advice of doctors advice about her “emotional, psychological state”.

Late on Sunday, Tsimanouskaya shared a screenshot of that statement on Instagram with the message: “This is a lie.”

“I am asking the International Olympic Committee for help, they are putting pressure on me and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent,” Tsimanouskaya said in a video message reportedly recorded on Sunday evening from the airport and posted on social media.

A person close to Olympic officials said there remained “confusion” around the incident, adding they had been told that Tsimanouskaya had boarded a coach to the airport and had gone through the departures area to board a plane to Istanbul, where she then sought Japanese police to ask for asylum.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya tweeted that she was grateful to the IOC for its quick reaction. “She has a right to international protection and to continue participation in the Olympics. It is also crucial to investigate Belarus’ NOC violations of athletes’ rights,” she said.

Tsimanouskaya on Friday appeared to criticise her coaches and team management in an Instagram post that said she had been “ignored” and that “people in higher ranks should respect us as athletes”.

The 24-year-old had taken part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed on qualifying for the semi finals of the event. She is listed on official Olympics sites as due to compete in the first round of the 200 metres at the Olympic stadium on Monday morning.





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