England might be coming out of lockdown – some of it at least – but there is little cheer for students. This week’s government mandated ‘student travel window‘ will extinguish any vestiges of face-to-face teaching to allow students to Zoom out the term from parental homes. My son Barney is among the class of 2020, the group of students forking out high fees to be cooped up in their overpriced university accommodation, seeing few people apart from the flat mates they have been billeted with.
November’s lockdown has hit these students hard. Clubs and societies have been curtailed; Facebook groups and mailing lists have taken their place. Barney was not alone in deciding to head home before the end of term. As his city moves into Tier Three, he certainly didn’t need to stay local to celebrate the end of term eating and drinking alone in his room in front of a laptop; a room that cost him £1442 this term.
He comes home after just eight face-to-face teaching sessions, but they have been oases for him: a total of 16 hours in the physics department. Four real-life tutorial classes were a refreshing change to the video screen but further highlighted what was still impossible: ‘It would be so good if we could sit around a table and talk about physics’, he told me. At least he could see his fellow students – or at least their eyes, masks being obligatory even when socially distanced – video tutorials were more often a grid of little black squares on his screen. ‘I turn my camera on when others do. It’s easier to contribute and I feel better when I can see other students. But it’s usually black screens and then I just fade into the background.’
Lectures have been the biggest disappointment. Almost all are pre-records; ‘I don’t like them. If the lecture theatre was confused the lecturer would know but I don’t know what anyone else is thinking. I miss asking questions when I get confused. I stop the video and replay it but a one hour lecture can take two hours and I get behind.’
Despite all this, he is full of praise for the efforts his university has gone to in these exceptional times. One maths lecturer stood out for him because he had taken the initiative to hold live on-line lectures: ‘Live lectures are a lot better. He keeps us to time and it is nice to get one hour of work done in one hour. He takes breaks when he would normally be cleaning the boards and we can ask questions even’.
When such small pleasures are noteworthy, it is clear that this is a year group at risk of a mental health crises. They know they are missing out. ‘I remember watching an astronomy lecture and the lecturer literally said when we were learning about Saturn and Jupiter, that they look really good at the moment. On a normal year he said he would try and take students up to the telescopes but this year he can’t. That made me sad; I wanted more than videos.’
The impact of Covid-19 restrictions on young people is profound. I am a secondary school teacher, and things are very different for me as well, though in our sector, face-to-face teaching continues. However, for me, this is one year of many that have, in recent years, been much the same. This may be the only year that Barney studies observational astronomy, by not actually observing anything.
First-year students have it particularly bad, having had no opportunity to make real-life friends. It has been a lonely experience. I asked Barney about returning next term:
‘I really do not want to lose a year of my life, so I will probably will carry on. But if it’s like this this time next year, I would be extremely depressed. I really don’t want to go into third year without having had a single in-person lecture.’
Remember, this year group has already had its fair share of difficulty. They were the guinea pigs for the latest incarnation of GCSE exams and never had the opportunity to even sit their A-Levels. One more term may be too much for some; education secretary Gavin Williamson and universities minister Michelle Donelan need to talk to universities now. They have a duty of care to their fee-paying customers that cannot be Zoomed across the internet. If schools like mine can teach 18-year-olds face-to-face, why not universities? With a Covid-19 infection fatality rate of 0.0046 per cent, his age group has far more significant hazards to be concerned about in the quest to ‘stay safe’.
Debbie Hayton is a transgender teacher and journalist.