What now for the Covid class of 2020?


By Sarah Harris

PITY the class of 2020. Eighteen-year-olds were still traumatised over this summer’s A-level debacle as they headed to campuses across the country.

They had been discouraged from taking gap years and promised a ‘high-quality, full and exciting’ experience by universities, with a ‘blended’ mix of online and in-person teaching in exchange for £9,000-a-year fees.

Many must now be wondering whether the personal and financial costs are simply too high a price to pay during this coronavirus pandemic.

Limited Opportunities for students
Students have complained of limited opportunities for both in-person learning and the chance to make new friends on or offline, making the first time away from home a lonely and depressing experience for many Freshers.

Unsurprising, perhaps, that some let off steam and ill-advisedly held parties that helped spread the virus across the student population – of course, while this age group is less likely to become seriously ill, they remain a transmission risk to the wider community.

Others are struggling with their mental health and considering dropping out altogether – another blow to the life chances of this Covid cohort whose A-level grades have a question mark hovering over them, through no fault of their own.

Currently:

  • Data collected by the University and College Union (UCU) reports 41,424 confirmed Covid cases at UK universities, as of November 10.
  • There were 2,305 confirmed cases at Newcastle by this date, 2,143 at Nottingham and 2,020 at Manchester – the three worst hit universities.

Christmas holidays
Uncertainty over the looming Christmas holidays had compounded students’ misery over recent weeks, as they feared becoming trapped on campus.

They understandably want to return home – yet more than one million young people all travelling on the same day, potentially spreading coronavirus across the country, must be avoided.

Government Policy
Since last Thursday (Nov 5), the country was plunged into a second national lockdown, lasting until December 2, with only schools, colleges and universities remaining open.

Universities Minister Michelle Donelan ordered students not to return home ahead of lockdown and the Department for Education (DfE) stressed that face-to-face teaching should continue on campus where it can be done safely.

However, on Wednesday November 11, the DfE unveiled new guidance for universities to help them manage the end of term.

Students are being urged to travel home after the end of lockdown during a ‘travel window’ from December 3-9.

Universities should switch to online learning by December 9 to allow students to work from home and mass coronavirus testing will take place across campuses ahead of the end of term.

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI), agrees that regular testing across universities is a vital way forward. He said: Mass testing offers a way to let students return home without putting other family members at unknown levels of risk.’

‘Prolonged Uncertainty’
Vice chancellors have welcomed the new government guidance, with their umbrella organisation, Universities UK (UUK), pointing out that students and staff have faced ‘prolonged uncertainty’.

But UUK also warned that some students may miss out on timetabled practicals and other in-person teaching at the end of term.

However, this option is still more palatable than previous proposals considered by Ministers, which would have seen students self-isolating for two weeks at the end of term.

It’s hard to see how many young people would have tolerated such a restriction – days after the national lockdown is due to end. They have, quite simply, been through enough.

Dr Simon Hyde, general secretary of HMC (the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference) which represents private schools including Benenden, Cheltenham Ladies’ College and Gordonstoun, said: ‘Teachers everywhere are feeling for former pupils who are now at university and facing such anxiety and uncertainty.

‘All times of transition are stressful and the Class of 2020 have already been through the fiasco surrounding their exam results. Most will be away from home for the first time and have sadly missed out on the traditional university experience.

‘HMC schools are in touch with their alumni and doing their best to assist.’

Hopefully, students can now gain some comfort from planning a safe way home to their families this Christmas.


Sarah Harris is a freelance education journalist who regularly writes for the national press. She a former education correspondent at the Daily Mail.


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