Despite the impossible situation I detailed in my first article, I chose to leave the oasis of the Isle of Man in mid-September and return to university, to my friends and to my life as an individual, studying for a degree that will shape my future. With the majority of in-person teaching cancelled until at least week seven, and social distancing measures having a huge impact on the daily routine, I admit to feeling real apprehension about what lay in store.
10 days in, I’m doing okay. I’m in a uni flat with four mates from last year – a god send. We socialise and cook together, walk to the shops and along the beach, as well as holding in-flat Monopoly and film nights, providing a human connection that is more important now than ever. The six months of lockdown were excruciatingly long, despite having a supportive family, and interaction with my own generation has been very welcome. But the Student Union is shut, the sports centre is shut, you have to book a slot to go to the library. It’s all a stark reminder of the situation off-island. We’re not allowed to visit other flats but can talk to people outdoors – which is great in the current weather, but will be a problem once October hits. I remain concerned for the freshers who arrive in a new environment, usually not knowing anyone and living with strangers. In these COVID times, there needs to be plenty of support for them to ensure their involvement with their given bubble.
As a flat, we have abided by the rules; there were no reunions given the six-person cap on gatherings. Teaching is all online, a mixture of pre-recorded and live lectures and tutorials, with a tentative plan to return to some in person tutorials soon, but I remain sceptical. Some lecturers are using online learning as an opportunity to create a more interactive experience – for example with breakout rooms where students leave the main call to split into separate discussion groups – but debate can be hindered by the inability to talk simultaneously and teething issues like poor connection. Changes to assessment, such as the inclusion of a participation and engagement mark in certain modules, are welcome.
Could the teaching all have been done remotely? Without a doubt. It is the business model of the universities and their dependence on accommodation income that I believe has been the driver for the insistence on a return to campus. I’m no scientist but surely hundreds of thousands of students travelling across the country to live in shared accommodation can only have worsened the COVID situation.
But I do not regret my return to university; I am motivated, engaged and seizing all opportunities. I write and present a radio show every week and I’ve joined a conservation group. I’ve applied to be the course rep and I’m starting to look at placements for next year. It is very different to last year, but students like me must look for the opportunities to get involved, to make a difference and do something positive after the frustrations of lockdown.
The real test will be what happens next. Our whole student population was asked by the Principal to observe a ‘voluntary lockdown’ last weekend, now extended to this week, as the number of COVID infections here has risen following a freshers’ party. While people carry on thinking it’s okay for them to push the boundaries, I suspect we’re fighting a losing battle. The uncertainty is hard to deal with as you endeavour to settle in and work but you don’t know what will happen this week, this month, or even over the next year. It’s a challenge to remain positive and driven. For students with mountains of debt, no social interaction with lecturers or fellow students, and years of hard work being compromised through this pandemic, the toll on mental health will be unprecedented; universities and the Government must be aware of this and make decisions accordingly. Meanwhile, we must all support each other; students, talk to your friends, your family, your neighbours, the first year in the street looking alone. We are all in this together.