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Research and Briefings

Coronavirus & education sector: Australian universities return to campus


Published: 8 October 2020

As the number of daily COVID-19 cases continue to fall across the country, most notably in Victoria following the State’s “second wave”, businesses are returning to work as coronavirus restrictions start to ease. The Australian education sector is welcoming students back after spending months developing plans to safely return to university and school campuses.

Whilst most primary and secondary schools have been back to in-class learning for months (with the exception of areas in ongoing lockdown restrictions), universities and colleges have only recently started their gradual transition. Online learning is still largely being utilised across most Australian universities, with students now having the option to attend classes in person, provided social distancing can be maintained.

As campuses reopen to students, employees and visitors, even those with the best-laid plans must prepare for a possible outbreak and have strategies to swiftly identify infections, control the spread, and agilely address related issues on campus.

Universities and other higher education institutions should consider the following nine key measures as they transition back to campus while navigating these unprecedented times:

  1. Establish and communicate clear protocols around social distancing and infection reduction measures.
  2. Capture information to aid contact tracers.
  3. Establish dedicated Incident Management Teams (IMT). 
  4. Monitor and follow government guidelines.
  5. Consider expanding counselling and support services.
  6. Identify related risks.
  7. Seek continuous improvement quickly. 
  8. Consider the community impact.
  9. Remember that not one-size-fits-all.

1.     Establish and communicate clear protocols around social distancing and infection reduction measures.

Strong social distancing protocols, COVID-19 specific procedures and processes, clear guidelines to staff and students around when not to attend campus (sickness or symptoms) and managing sick leave during a pandemic are critical to maintain the health and safety of everyone on site. Establishing, implementing and communicating such protocols not only help to manage the risks of COVID-19 infections, but also provide a clear path of communication and a straightforward process to reduce anxiety and increase adherence to the rules.

Training relating to returning to campus and the university’s coronavirus safety protocols should be established and rolled out to all students and staff, and visitors where reasonably possible. This training should occur prior to any person (student, staff or visitor) accessing the campus.

Consider establishing a feedback channel for students or staff to voice concerns, report any non-compliances or share general questions and suggestions. This could be achieved through surveys and regular team/class check-ins.

2.      Capture information to aid contact tracers.

When dealing with a potential outbreak on campus, timely contact tracing is key. Schools and universities must be able to quickly identify infected individuals to help contain the spread of infection to their close contacts and casual contacts. This is even more critical in a university setting, where social interactions are many and varied.

Access to data such as class schedules and living arrangements within residence halls and academic settings allows staff to efficiently aid local government and health authorities in contact tracing and facilitating official protocols around isolation, testing and potential campus or school closures. Data can also assist in identifying trends within the education sector, which can be helpful for both the sector and health officials in identifying potential future problem areas.

3.      Establish dedicated Incident Management Teams (IMT). 

IMTs can be mobilised to be responsible for implementing the guidelines and planned actions set by the university, including managing suspected or confirmed cases; facility closures; deep cleaning schedules and the identification of high-risk locations. IMTs can serve as key contact points for parties involved in infection cases, as well as provide general support to staff and students for COVID-19 related issues. IMTs can reduce the leadership team’s operational burden and keep them informed of the latest trends and policy changes.

4.      Monitor and follow government guidelines.

It is important to be up-to-date on the latest government guidelines for your State or Territory in relation to restrictions, trends, changing rules and the latest developments. In addition to the Incident Management Teams, all leadership teams and senior staff should be closely monitoring government updates. Staff and students should also be encouraged to remain aware of government updates around restrictions.

5.      Consider expanding counselling and support services.

To help manage the risk of psychological implications related to COVID-19, mental health and wellbeing guides, procedures and services should be made available for all – students, teachers, school staff (permanent or temporary) and families. School officials should clearly communicate the availability of counselling services and the channels through which they are being offered.

Schools and universities can adapt their existing psychologist support – such as Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) – to suit the current climate, and incorporate services such as online wellbeing seminars, group counselling sessions/support, as well as proactive wellbeing support and coaching services for leaders.

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of staying “connected”, whether via an online video forum, phone call or something as simple as a non-work related group chat. Consideration should also be given to vulnerable groups such as international students who may not speak English particularly well or do not have any personal support network (family and friends) in Australia. Counselling services should be made available in languages other than English where international students have remained on campus.

6.      Identify related risks.

Amid the pandemic, other key risks have emerged that could present additional threats as campuses reopen and may intersect with COVID-19. For example, related risks from potential protests held on campus grounds or surrounding areas, whether it be directly related to university activities such as student council/political campaigns, or broader social causes such as the Black Lives Matter or Me Too movements. The university should remain vigilant about these risks and seek to balance the desire of students to demonstrate against the need to limit the spread of COVID-19 and keep campuses safe. Interaction with the police and State/Territory government authorities can be a key part of the communication protocol and response plan. This includes adhering to local government’s rules relating to permissible activities and gatherings during a pandemic.

Online learning and remote working environments across higher education institutions have consequently expanded these institutions’ cyber-attack footprint, making it more difficult to secure and creating new points of entry for cyber adversaries. Whilst the primary focus remains the health and safety of students and the faculty, the confluence of traditional and new risks make this the right time to conduct cyber resilience reviews. Training employees, regular reviews of security policies and incident response plans are all important measures in managing cyber risk.

Occupational violence and aggression is another risk that could have a cumulative effect during a pandemic, especially given the already heightened levels of anxiety. Training and preparing staff for such incidents are critical, as are having heightened security and counselling support to ensure the safety and wellbeing of staff.

Additionally, dissatisfied employees could add another layer of complexity, where interactions can be highly stressful to the school leadership in an already demanding COVID-19 environment. It is important to actively communicate and consult with all relevant parties including industry bodies, unions, safety representatives, legal advisors and all employees, including those with non-standard roles (eg. administration staff and maintenance workers), to mediate and mitigate issues from escalating.

In Australia, other external risks that could have a cumulative impact include environmental risks such as bushfires and flooding. The catastrophic bushfires that hit both Victoria and New South Wales just prior to the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted a large number of educational facilities in the North East and South East parts of these States between November 2019 through to January 2020. With Australia heading into the warmer months, consideration should be given to these exposures particularly for campuses in “at risk” locations.

7.      Seek continuous improvement quickly. 

Organisations across all industries have had to adapt to continually changing circumstances throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The education sector should also maintain flexibility by continually reviewing and updating policies and processes to adapt to the current climate, while consulting with varying sectors and government bodies to share learnings and adopt best practices.

Senior leaders should engage in regular tabletop exercises and develop contingency plans for a variety of potential situations, so that everyone is clear on their roles during an emergency. Consider, for example, what to do if parents are reluctant or unable to accept a potentially infected student back home, or if an infectious student who lives in student accommodation has no other place of residence to return to for isolation.

8.      Consider the community impact.

The public may access university grounds, facilities and restaurants/cafes to exercise, walk their dogs, have meals, research, etc. Universities and colleges should endeavour to keep local communities informed of any COVID-19 outbreaks or quarantine centres that may impact the community, particularly those in the immediate vicinity of campus grounds.

9.      Remember that not one-size-fits-all.

Whilst establishing sustainable controls that can be implemented with minimal impact to normal operations can be an effective means to reduce risk across educational facilities, it is also important to acknowledge that when it comes to risk management, it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, even within the same industry. Different educational facilities have different risk exposures and factors to consider. It is important that each facility continually review and assess their risk profile during and after the pandemic.

Client spotlight: Helping 1,500+ schools navigate a pandemic

Marsh Australia has been working closely with the education sector to help assess and map out the unique risks of some 1,500 schools, ranging from primary, secondary to special education.

Identifying & managing risks: Working with each school to conduct COVID-19 risk assessments, we are also helping them develop strategies to mitigate the risks identified, particularly in high exposure areas such as school drop-off and pick-up, student and teacher interactions and management of other persons on school grounds. These focus areas may differ depending on the school’s unique circumstances and set up (eg. boarding school versus university versus college).

Staying focused: These risk assessments and our risk management recommendations have allowed the schools’ leadership teams and staff to focus on their core business activity of delivering education to students.

Key trends: Through our recent work as an independent risk advisor, Marsh has seen an increase in demand for advice and support for schools in the areas of: infection control; remote working/in isolation; mental health and wellbeing; and occupational violence and aggression.


As the pandemic continues, returning to campus will bring new and unexpected challenges for schools, universities and colleges. To minimise disruption and ensure the continual function of delivering essential education to students, it is imperative that leadership and management plan ahead in order to be prepared to respond quickly and appropriately to potential COVID-19 cases on campus. Such plans need to ensure the safety of students and staff, as well as assist local government authorities’ efforts in containing the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

If you have any questions, please reach out to your Marsh representative or contact us here.

For the latest information and updates related to COVID-19, please visit Marsh Australia’s Coronavirus Risk Hub.

LCPA: 20/286

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