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In-person university teaching to resume

French vaccine plan foresees face-to-face activity as norm for 2021 academic year

Universities across France are to have just one overarching goal for the next academic year, according to research minister Frédérique Vidal: performing all teaching in person.

Speaking to journalists on 9 July, Vidal said that, come September, universities were expected to drop all of the online and distance-learning activities introduced to reduce the spread of coronavirus. “Making a success of the start of the 2021 academic year means giving us the means to make a success of a 100 per cent face-to-face start to the academic year, everywhere, for everyone,” she said.

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit France in March 2020, staff and students have boomeranged between universities and home. Measures to curtail the pandemic have included distance learning, socially distanced lecture theatres, libraries working by appointment, and special permission to attend campus for some researchers and students deemed vulnerable.

Unveiling a plan known as #MaRentrée (my return), Vidal said vaccination was the key to a full reopening after months of on-off absence from universities.

“If the number of young people vaccinated is not sufficient, we will have to reintroduce the enrolment gauges [social distancing regulations that reduced the capacity of lecture theatres by 50 per cent],” she said.

The government has launched a communications campaign on the issue, and September will see vaccination marquees deployed on campuses across France. According to surveys conducted by Public Health France, nearly 71 per cent of students and prospective students are supportive of the vaccination process, but Vidal said that more needed to be done to convince them to follow through.

“Vaccination is our best weapon so that we do not have to introduce new measures in higher education institutions," said Vidal.

However, the claimed return to “100 per cent in-person” teaching does not mean distance learning will be abandoned, the government said. While tutorials and group work will be performed face to face, some lectures will continue to be delivered online with lecturers scheduling onscreen appearances in the theatre venues on a week-on, week-off basis.

In addition, international students from countries with high rates of Covid-19 will have to present a negative PCR test before attending, while prospective students coming from countries deemed a “red” zone may simply have to delay their entry to France, the government said.

Speaking to public radio station France Info, Virginie Dupont, vice-president of the Conference of University Presidents (CPU), said universities were aware that plans might have to change at short notice.

“Of course, it is a concern,” she said. “The ministry has already committed us to a plan B, a fallback plan with, for example, a 50 per cent capacity in the lecture theatres. So we have to be prepared.”