Will this place be full of students on block 4? Photo: DUB

Higher education set to reopen before students receive self-tests

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Utrecht University still hopes that all students will be able to return to the campus for one day a week from Block 4. The Dutch government would like all university students and staff to test themselves before they go to campus. The Minister of Education explained to the Parliament the logistics behind this idea.

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If the number of coronavirus infections doesn’t rise too high, then university students will be allowed to return to campuses for one day a week, starting April 26th. The government believes that self-tests can help ensure a safe return to face-to-face education.

But how does it intend to get all those tests in the hands of hundreds of thousands of people? There are many unanswered questions about this plan, including in the House of Representatives, which is why the Minister of Education, Ingrid van Engelshoven, wrote a letter (in Dutch) answering some of the most common ones. 

Online platform
SURF, the ICT organization for the Dutch educational system, will help to distribute the free tests, setting up an online platform where students and staff can place their orders. They will be able to access this portal using the same username and password they use to access their institutions’ digital environments. After they submit the order, the self-tests are delivered to an address of their choosing.

Anyone who doesn’t have a SURF account (because they are enrolled at a non-public university of applied sciences, for instance) will receive self-tests through their institution. A number of public universities of applied sciences are making a deliberate choice to take care of their own distribution, which the Minister supports.

Stockpiling
The platform is expected to be ready in early May, and the distribution of the tests will begin in the following days. That means that institutions may reopen well before distribution has started, but this should not be an issue, according to the Minister. “Self-tests will play a supporting part in this reopening but are not a precondition”.

Not all tests will be delivered by standard mail carriers. The ministry and SURF are “signing contracts with third parties to organise test distribution”. The Ministry of Health – which is currently stockpiling self-tests – will deliver tests to a number of distribution points. The institutions are then expected to receive the first batches in the second half of April.

Confident
In total, the operation will cost almost half a billion euros. The money will be taken out of the coronavirus fund of the Ministry of Finance. The self-tests are voluntary and should not be seen as a substitute for the basic Covid rules: students will still be expected to maintain social distancing, stay at home if they have symptoms and regularly wash their hands.

The Minister ended her letter on a positive note: “I am confident that this can be done in a safe manner and appeal to institutions, students and staff to contribute to the improvement of the epidemiological situation through the use of self-tests.”

Pilot
Looking at the results of a recent self-test pilot at Avans University of Applied Sciences, however, the Minister’s appeal might be falling on deaf ears. As it turns out, students are not all that eager to use self-tests: in the end, only 30 percent of those who were asked to do so participated in the pilot.

What does that mean for the prospect of higher education returning back to normal, with no social distancing? The Chair of Avans' Executive Board, Paul Rüpp, said that it's a "real possibility" that students will be asked to show a negative test result or proof of vaccination. Professor of Educational Law at Tilburg University, Paul Zoontjens, thinks this is “more or less inevitable”.

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