Students prepare for the unknown as they start university amid coronavirus

‘I’m worried about it being a bit antisocial,’ one 18-year-old says about start of term

Zoe Tidman
Monday 31 August 2020 20:44 BST
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Many students applied to university before coronavirus and social distancing had entered the UK’s day-to-day vocabulary.

Now, they are preparing to start courses as universities adapt to become as safe as possible during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s definitely not how I imagined going back to university would be like,” Elena Leonard tells The Independent.

The 24-year-old will be starting a master’s degree in London next month, but is not expecting to be on campus as much as she originally thought, as her university – like others – plans on moving towards online teaching as a precaution against the coronavirus.

“It does feel strange to be doing things online and knowing you’re not really going to see people in person for a while,” she says.

While she will miss being able to get to know other students and teachers in person, she says she is lucky to have been living in the capital for a while, so already feels settled.

For other students moving to a new place, starting university while coronavirus restrictions are still ongoing may feel unusual.

Megan, who is moving to the UK from Singapore for university, says lots of freshers’ events are online this year, “which will make it harder to make friends”.

“A lot of my friends from home decided to take a gap year or stay here to pursue a similar degree instead, making the social situation very different from what it could have been,” she tells The Independent.

The incoming student at King’s College London says she finds it “unsettling” starting university during the pandemic, especially as she is moving to a new country and away from her family – especially as her parents can no longer fly over with her. Under current rules, she would also have to quarantine for two weeks after arriving to the UK.

Lois Lawn, an incoming student at the University of Surrey, said she is also concerned this year’s Freshers Week – usually marked by welcome and social events as students settle in and get to know each other – may not be as good as usual, as there is the possibility of events happening online, and clubs remain shut in the UK.

Lois Lawn is getting ready to study physics at university (Lois Lawn)

“I’m worried about it being a bit antisocial,” she tells The Independent, “and maybe not getting the same opportunities as last year.”

The University of Aberdeen has said it will move its Freshers Week completely online. A spokesperson told The Independent the university understands this will be a “disappointment” but is “committed to providing as full an experience as possible”.

As well as moving welcome events online, institutions have also said lectures will be virtual as a precaution against coronavirus.

The University of Cambridge announced as early as May all lectures will be online for the whole of the upcoming academic year.

Lawn, who will be studying physics next month, has been told there will be hybrid teaching – a move which lots of other universities have announced as they plan to do a mixture of online and face-to-face teaching.

“I’m not really too sure what to expect,” she says.

Lawn says she is also “quite nervous” about the possibility of a second wave of coronavirus, and the risk students could get sent home. “That is going to be really destructive,” she adds.

Despite the move towards more online teaching, the University and College Union has called for the government to tell universities to move all teaching online and “abandon plans” for any remaining face-to-face teaching for the first term.

“Moving a million-plus students around the country is a recipe for disaster and risks leaving ill-prepared universities as the care homes of a second wave,” Jo Grady, the general secretary, said.

Soutiam Goodarzi said her move to the University of Oxford is going to be different, with people having to arrive at staggered times to reduce mixing as students arrive.

Soutiam Goodarzi is preparing to move to Oxford to study medicine (Soutiam Goodarzi)

However, she said she is not quite sure how it will be starting university, where she will studying medicine, amid coronavirus.

“In terms of how I feel, I don’t actually know,” the student from Leeds tells The Independent. “I think it is so uncertain.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The safety and wellbeing of university staff and students is always our priority, and we are confident that universities are well prepared for the return of students by taking measures such as introducing social distancing on campus, limiting travel requirement for classes and staggering teaching across extended days to reduce numbers on site.”

They added: “We support face-to-face teaching only where possible and if safety guidelines are followed, but know that high-quality online teaching can also be delivered if necessary.

“We are keeping our guidance under constant review, and are currently updating our advice on reopening higher education buildings and campuses to reflect the latest public health advice, including on face coverings, local lockdowns and test and trace.”

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