Back to School in a Pandemic: A Portsmouth University Student’s View of Covid-19

Portsmouth University student Jessica De Lord shares her hopes and concerns about returning to study in the ‘new normal’ of online learning, distanced classrooms and a somewhat restricted social life.

It feels like a million years ago when I was out enjoying the loud beats and bright lights of Astoria nightclub, taking my freedom for granted. But it was in fact only eight months ago. Then came March and the shocking headline ‘deadly virus reaches the UK’ was all over the media. With a snap of a finger, all kinds of institutions shut down, including Portsmouth University where I am a student.

When we heard that the term was finishing early for Easter, I had a feeling we wouldn’t be coming back. Then came the introduction of virtual learning. All motivation went out the window and rolling out of bed for a dreaded 9am lecture in ‘the real world’ suddenly seemed easier in comparison to reaching for my laptop at the end of my bed.

When you take away the requirement to physically be in a specific place at a specific time and interact with people, self-discipline can plummet. Home learning can lead you into the dangerous territory of oversleeping; ‘I think I’ll just catch up on that pre-recorded video lecture another day’. But then tasks and assignments start to pile up endlessly. This was going to be a difficult challenge, not only for students across the nation, but also millions of working people.

During lockdown many of us students felt more than neglected. I and others had doubts that we would even bother coming back for the new academic year. It would be an understatement to say that we lacked any reassurance from the government about what this new Covid learning environment would be like. Multiple social media platforms showed angered and stressed students left in the shadows, as it were. Appeals were made and petitions signed in the hope that we wouldn’t have to pay accommodation and full tuition fees. After the restrictions eased, I regained my thirst for student life. Now, as we embark on a new year, we wonder: what will happen now? Covid-19 is spreading fast with universities being called a potential ‘second wave ground zero’.

Most universities – including mine – have introduced a mix of virtual and face-to-face teaching. Over lockdown I missed classroom interaction; the benefits you get from bouncing ideas off peers. That’s now possible for some courses and units, although not easy as everyone has to be masked and sitting 2 metres apart. Classes have to be smaller in size, too. I have found that this ‘new normal’ has amplified my own shyness and insecurity as I sometimes struggle to hear my muffled tutors and fellow students.

As a humanities student, I wonder how my counterparts in science are faring. How much can you learn about an applied, practical subject when you can’t get inside laboratories? And what new health and safety challenges now face those who are able to conduct experiments? Changes in mindsets and behaviours will have to be reinforced.

In our virtual learning world we’re having to endure technical difficulties around sound, image and poor internet connection. Moreover, levels of procrastination may remain as high as they did over lockdown as students battle the urge not to be distracted by less educational online material courtesy of YouTube or Netflix.

Along with changes to the curriculum, we are having to adjust to changes in our social lives. Most of us have experienced a good six months away from our University friends and a catch-up with a few drinks would be most welcome. If a fresh lockdown – local or national – is announced, our freedom to enjoy a good old pub night will be taken away. While singing our hearts out on the karaoke machine was banned in July, in the event of a new lockdown there’ll be no more yelling at each other during pub quizzes.

There is also the pressure of sticking to the ‘bubble’ restrictions – something students have been notoriously bad at around the country so far. Indeed, various sections of the media are blaming students for new infections and what is likely to become a second wave. But it’s unfair to hold only students to account for that. What about people going back into their workplaces or the large numbers of diners tempted into crowded restaurants by the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme?

The future for students like me is unknown. All of these plans have been made, but how sure are we that they will work? I hope that one day we’ll be able to ditch the masks, sit close to our friends and not worry about the looks and comments that follow the sound of someone coughing.

Image by Maziar bonab, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


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