Here is how universities can support the forgotten covid cohort

This year's freshers completed their GCSEs and A levels during a global pandemic. Petra Boynton asks if universities can provide the support they will need.

Petra Boynton is a social psychologist specialising in staff and student safety and wellbeing. She runs the Research Companion project.

The students that I call the ‘forgotten covid cohort’ will receive their A and T levels in  Wales, NI and England today. But are universities ready to welcome them?

In March 2020, within days of schools closing for lockdown, these then Year 11 pupils discovered they would not take GCSE exams. Some families appreciated the security of being at home (particularly those where pupils had experienced bullying; or had special needs, disabilities or mental health problems). Others struggled with home working, being key workers, or losing their jobs. Pupils affected by a lack of familiar routine, poverty, abuse and domestic violence also lost the safety net of peers and school pastoral care. And risks of online grooming and radicalisation rose.

For this cohort, there was also no closure. No rights of passage. No last exam, prom, or parties. Alongside their older and younger peers, they faced loneliness, isolation, sickness and grief. Alongside anxiety and eating disorders increasing faster than an overwhelmed Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) could cope with.

Government disorganisation (including the disastrous results day 2020); conspiracy theories; and other world events left them feeling both acutely affected by everything and simultaneously shut out.

In January 2021 we went into another national lockdown. Colleges and sixth forms did their best to offer support, but it was challenging for teachers to build relationships online when they were also stressed and on a rapid learning curve. These difficulties were compounded when they were working with students they had not known long – and who are coping with so many issues that they may not know how to fix.

What does this mean for Higher Education?

This cohort (alongside other returning students, including PGRs) will likely need everything explained in multiple formats, many times. Right from the start, you can expect more uncertainty from this cohort including lots of questions asked about university processes when accepting places, or during clearing. Once enrolled, signposting to assistance; explaining how universities work; introductory and refresher classes; plus basic study skills will be necessary. And staff doing this also need support for what can feel like a laborious and frustrating task.

Pastoral care is going to be crucial. At this point, we don’t precisely know how this cohort will cope. We need staff to be poised to identify any students who looks like they need assistance before it gets to a crisis point.

The issue is that staff are already burnt out and demoralised and may lack the ability or desire to build relationships and provide additional care – this is more so if they’re precarious, underpaid, unsupported, or at risk of redundancy. The ongoing damage caused by poor management throughout the pandemic – and prior – continues to harm.

In terms of access, many prospective students that need Children and Adult Mental Health Service (CAMHS) care are still on the waiting list. Disability assessments are similarly delayed. This will impact our ability to meet access requirements.

And parents are likely going to be more involved because they’ve had to be for years. This may be a place of tension for some tutors, families, and students. Parents may find letting go more challenging and student homesickness is liable to be acute.

What might help students and staff?

  • Whole campus joined-up care
  • Trauma-informed teaching and pastoral support
  • Student welfare (including advice on personal safety, travel, consent, and spiking)
  • Study skills (for example, supported study hours and writing clubs)
  • Mentoring programmes
  • Disabilities officers
  • Chaplaincy
  • Housing and financial advice
  • Hardship funds, essentials boxes and food banks
  • Library services
  • Counselling
  • Befriending and social activities
  • Spaces to debrief and vent
  • Healthcare services (including advice on sexual health, Covid-19 and Monkeypox)
  • Prayer and quiet spaces
  • Unions, societies, and clubs
  • Campus Care Maps
  • Recovery Syllabi
  • Listening Services
  • Mental Health First Aiders
  • Nightline and other peer support
  • Suicide prevention programmes

Time and space to get to know students will be vital, as appreciating so much of their lives and learning has been disrupted. They may seem much younger than their years. Offering assistance without making them feel patronised will mean a lot.

This forgotten cohort of students will need care, but you matter too, so fit your own lifejacket now, before they arrive.

One response to “Here is how universities can support the forgotten covid cohort

  1. The unsung, often under-utilised team for this job is your institution’s army of technical staff (of which I am one). The last few years has seen attendances drop in workshop and studio spaces. We need to get students back in and onto campus instead on working on things at home. We need to be putting on extra inductions and skills classes to make up for shortfalls across the board. You will find most of in a student-facing role want to do this because helping them to then achieve their own ideas is a rewarding part of the job.

    But we also have families and childcare. Unions are putting this years’ pay increase to their members this month; why not agree to the guest lecturer stipend extending to technical staff who wish to put on extra sessions (agreed with academics) to support course material and fill these gaps? This is already done in some institutions as part of the course; why not expand? We’d be happy to help!

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