The human impact of this pandemic has implications for policy and practice

Julie Hulme reveals largely untold stories of the dramatic effect on the lives of students arising from the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, the media has been criticised for sensationalising the virus – particularly through its emphasis on the high mortality rate amongst older people and those with underlying health conditions.

The underlying discourse suggests that young, healthy people are relatively safe, and unaffected – and of course this population typically includes many students in higher education.

One might be led to believe, then, that students have had a relatively easy time during the lockdown, especially given some coverage suggesting that younger people may have largely ignored lockdown restrictions or been among the first to visit beaches and host house parties. But my day-to-day interactions with students tell a very different story.

Human impacts

Despite all students being given a universal two-week extension on all assessments this semester, we have seen the number of “exceptional circumstances” (known elsewhere as mitigating or extenuating circumstances) claims more than double in the past few months. Within our undergraduate final year alone, my department has processed around 300 exceptional circumstances claims.

Some of these students have been directly affected by coronavirus, having had the virus themselves – some for extended periods of time. One student experienced symptoms including pneumonia for over two months. Others have experienced bereavement; one student has lost three family members in as many months.

These students have lost valuable learning time, and now face catching up on assessments over the summer months.

But it is not only the direct effects of Covid-19 that have affected students’ learning. I conducted a survey of all students in my department, and found that many aspects of equality, diversity and inclusion have impacted upon them.

Students talk about mental ill health and isolation, about not having access to a computer or the internet, and having to study in crowded living spaces whilst competing for desk space with parents and siblings.

One student described becoming homeless after finding herself facing domestic violence whilst still trying to complete her assignments. Others have taken on extra hours as key workers and volunteers, to support the needy in their communities; some have lost their jobs and have serious financial concerns.

Despite their personal circumstances, many students have persisted, submitted work, and even excelled. They are to be applauded – especially as many of these students also describe the challenges of working without a routine, without access to the library, without being able to just drop in for a chat informally with a tutor.

Asking for help is difficult when you have to clearly articulate your question in an email, when maybe your thoughts are in disarray, and you feel like you might be bothering your tutor.

It’s not all bad news. Some students have benefitted from online learning – ironically often those with energy-limiting disabilities, some of whom have found that the accessibility and flexibility of emergency remote teaching suited them better than the “old normal”. And many of our students felt well supported, and we certainly worked hard to make sure that they knew that help was available.

Listening and learning

What concerns me is that many of these stories – of the real lived experience for university students during the pandemic – are not being heard by everyone. Emergency remote teaching has meant that many academics have had considerably less direct contact with their students, and the student voice has been heard by those of us who are communicating with students every day, but not necessarily by everyone.

Along with the media slant suggesting that young people are safe, this can lead to a disconnection from the very real challenges that students are facing. Institutions need to find ways to capture authentic student voices, over the summer if they don’t already have these data, to inform the approaches we take in the new academic year, and to give issues such as mental health, bereavement, and inequality of access to technology and resources a human face.

Many students are deeply concerned about the coming academic year. They feel that they have missed important learning opportunities, especially with changes to assessment processes, and they worry that, somehow, in the coming year, they will have to learn all the new material whilst catching up on what they missed. Universities need to be thinking now about how to help students to catch up on the curriculum.

Some students are extremely vulnerable, shielding, with complex health conditions and disabilities, and they have no idea how they are going to cope with the coming academic year. Others are in different countries, different time zones, and they don’t know when or if they’ll be able to travel back to the UK. Institutions will need to balance the need to provide in-class learning with providing online tuition for students for whom it would be unsafe to come to class, or who are prevented from doing so by travel restrictions.

What we do (and communicate) about that now will affect students’ decisions – do they return to university? In the case of two of my students with disabilities – should they take up the places they have on postgraduate courses, or defer?

Some students will need to take a leave of absence, especially if they are recovering from post-coronavirus complications or multiple bereavements; others may have new caring responsibilities. But taking a leave of absence extends a degree by a year, and current student finance regulations mean that this can only be done once; if problems arise later, these students may be forced to study through their difficulties unless government puts in place exceptional measures for them to be able to extend their studies by a further year.

University support systems were overstretched before coronavirus, with waiting lists for counselling being cited frequently in the press. Mental ill health and financial crises that have been exacerbated by lockdown will not magically disappear in September, and universities will need to be ready to provide even more than they have struggled to deliver in recent years. A hard-pressed higher education sector is somehow going to have to find additional resource to invest in student support.

The focus of much of the sector has been around new student numbers. These are, of course, of vital importance to the financial health of universities. But we need to remember that coronavirus, far from being “an old person’s illness” has had a dramatic effect on the lives of many of our students. Government and higher education providers need to plan carefully for the long-term implications of coronavirus for existing students – for whom we have a very real duty of care.

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