Outbreak team aims to mitigate ‘significant risk’ posed by 40,000 students returning to York in September

Photograph: University of York

Plans are being drawn up for up to 40,000 students to return to the city in September, as universities and colleges aim to return to normal face-to-face teaching.

Health bosses acknowledged residents may feel anxious about people coming to the city from all over the country and the world.

But measures to control an outbreak of coronavirus in York’s student population are being planned.

A report to the York Outbreak Advisory Board says safety plans should cover both residential students at the University of York, York St John University and Askham Bryan College, and daily commuting students – in particularly large numbers at York College, Askham Bryan College and York St John.

The report said: “This combination of residential and commuting students brings significant risks in the context of Covid-19, which all four institutions are mitigating by implementing Covid Secure guidelines to minimise the risk of an infection spreading.”

Charlie Jeffery, vice chancellor at the University of York, told the York Outbreak Advisory Board he expects 40,000 students to return to the city’s two universities and colleges in September.

He said: “Students coming from different places to live [in York] and students travelling into the city from day to day, each bring with them risks that that we and the four institutions are very keen to help manage.

“We are putting together mitigations to make our campuses as Covid-secure as possible.”

He said testing facilities will be crucial to rapidly trace contacts, isolate students and contain an outbreak as fast as possible.

Reassure residents

Sharon Stoltz, the council’s public health director, welcomed efforts to plan ahead and reassure residents.

She said: “We’re really looking at what we can do not only to support the students, but also to give residents the confidence that despite having students arrive in the city from all corners of the country, we’ve got the right mechanisms in place around safety.”

The largest minority ethnic group in York is Chinese, partly due to the large number of international students, a report written for the Outbreak Board says.

Cllr Carol Runciman added: “I think the arrival of students from all over the country and all over the world could raise some very tricky issues with public relations, but I also think that the universities can contribute very positively.

“Everybody’s been very concerned about the densities of population in the colleges and the universities and the public knowing that we are looking at it as a separate issue, and very carefully, might be reassuring to them.”

Research underway

University of York vice-chancellor Charlie Jeffery

York could also benefit from the universities and colleges providing more testing services – and research into coronavirus and the impact of the lockdown – a council meeting heard.

Prof Jeffery said about 200 academics at the university are researching coronavirus – in topics including the impact on mental health and oxygen quality testing.

The university and college have planned for social distancing and hygiene measures.

And the University of York will help international students who need to self-isolate upon arrival with accommodation, food and shopping.

York St John University has been approached for a comment.