Bags are packed and coronavirus tests are under way; this is the week Johnny Jenkins, like thousands of other students across the UK, is finally able to go home. The 20-year-old, who is in his third year studying for his degree in politics at Warwick University, has taken two tests (to show whether he has Covid-19) organised by student services ahead of the mass departure. He had one swab on Monday and will have another on Thursday before he leaves. He’s hoping it comes back negative.
Jenkins is planning to make the 130-mile drive home to his family in Southend, Essex, on Friday (4 December) with his dad. It comes after a year of turmoil for university students who have faced lockdowns, fears that they wouldn’t be able to go home at all, and a narrative that they are behaving irresponsibly and are responsible for furthering virus spread. All this, along with the usual pressures of academic life and, for many, of adapting to living away from home for the first time.
“I’m coming home as there’s no way I’m spending five to six weeks in my room alone. Staying at university was never an option for me,” he says. “I’m really looking forward to going [back].” Jenkins says all of his friends are going home this weekend and he doesn’t know anyone travelling outside of the official student travel window.
In September, government advisor Sir Mark Walport suggested students might have to stay in halls over the Christmas period to avoid spreading the virus to elderly relatives with movement across the country. Although this was only an advisory statement, a vacuum of information to the contrary from Downing Street left many students concerned that a Christmas trapped away from mum and dad could come to fruition.
Eventually, in early November, the government clarified that students could be able to make use of an established six-day “student travel window” to go home between 3-9 December. Universities were told to end all face-to-face teaching by this date and many set up asymptomatic testing sites to give additional reassurance to those planning to leave. But there were still questions about how many would take up the offer, and the risks of crowded public transport as a result.
Jo Grady, university and college union general secretary, said at the time that the short period left “little room for error”. There were also concerns raised about the restriction causing a premium on ticket prices (although train operators did waive fees for students looking to move pre-booked tickets). Only now will the country see the plans put into practice.
Jacob Bush, 20, who is at the University of Liverpool studying communication and media, is also hoping to go home to his family in Sheffield on Friday. Like Jenkins he is getting a lift home from his parents – his brother is also studying in Liverpool so they will car pool home together. Christmas is particularly important to Bush because it is also his birthday.
“It does seem sensible to get students to do all their travelling before the rest of the country,” he says, although admits it is also a convenient time for his parents and he wants to get back in time for events at his church this month. “I considered going earlier so I could definitely be home before the government tried to stop students leaving but then they announced the travel window so I stayed. [But] spending Christmas alone would be very isolating”.
Bush says all his peers are planning to abide by the rules and go home during the travel window, unless they already went back prior to the nationwide lockdown. He says throughout the pandemic he has felt most students have not been rule breaking and he is frustrated about the narrative that has been portrayed. “We’ve been unfairly blamed,” he says. Bush has also had a coronavirus test to ensure he is safe to travel.
Although use of the student travel window is strongly encouraged by the government and higher education providers, it is ultimately, not compulsory. The government is warning that anyone who stays beyond 9 December, but still plans to get back home in time for Christmas, “will be advised to undertake a further period of restricted contact either before or after returning home to minimise the risk of transmission”.
It says that to choose to stay “runs the risk” of having to undertake a period of up to 14 days in isolation if you contract the virus or have been in contact with someone who has and would therefore “be at risk of not being able to travel home in time for Christmas”.
But for some people, it’s less of a choice than a financial necessity. Hollie Middleton, from Manchester, who is studying human geography at Sheffield Hallam University, has already had coronavirus this year – just three days into term. Although she says it is “very important to get home for Christmas” her retail job requires her to stay for longer than the travel window allows. She plans to go home on 20 December when her shifts come to an end.
For others, they won’t be going home at all this year, fearful of the underlying risk. Allegra Goodwin, 23, from Cambridge, who has been doing an MA in journalism for two months, has made the choice not to go home as her family are shielding. “It just isn’t safe enough even with the testing system as you could be incubating the virus and still test negative,” she says. Instead she is visiting her boyfriend’s family for three days under the Christmas bubble system – the pair will drive in late December.
Even if she was going home to her family, Goodwin cannot use the travel window because of her part-time job. “I can’t miss so many weeks of it. The student travel window has come much too early for students who need to work to afford their studies,” she explains. “I miss my family a lot and would love to go home but it’s just not possible this year. There’s no real provision for students who would need to isolate to go home but who also have to earn money.”
Whatever people decide, when they will return to their studies after Christmas is still up in the air. Government guidance currently says: “Our top priority for January will be the welfare of students, staff and the communities around higher education providers. We are looking to utilise mass testing to make the return to higher education as safe as possible and will provide further guidance in due course.”
After a year that has seen schools closed, exam grades predicted by an algorithm (and students failing to get into their university choices as a result), teaching moved online, students locked in halls of residence for weeks, and increasing experience of isolation, the promise of a Christmas reunion with family for many is welcome news. But as plans for a January return remain hazy many will be wondering whether the road into studying in 2021 looks any better.
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