Going to university this year will not be as easy as it may seem to some people. The impact COVID-19 may have on students will affect both those returning to university and those entering it for the first time. University presents unique challenges at the best of times like choosing what events to attend during your first few weeks and figuring out how to eat on €10 a week. Unfortunately, there are some invisible issues that will face students which I don’t think are being discussed in the government or media enough.
Many courses require students to develop hands-on skills. This may involve lab work in science courses, placements outside of the university and more. During my time in university, labs could consist of anywhere from 30-100 people. Labs are full of people coming and going. Some require windows to stay shut to moderate the temperature. Placements and lab work are required to become certified. How are students going to be sure of their safety and qualification if these are cancelled due to new outbreaks?
Lecture halls are going to be a significant issue. In first-year general science, there are usually around 400 students in the biology and chemistry classes. In other large classes, some students need to sit on the floor as there are not enough seats. Sharing a lecture hall with hundreds of people means it is breeding ground for viruses and bacteria, as almost everyone gets sick with something between September and December.
One option is to half the classes and ensure social distancing can be maintained. Another is to divide the classes into “pods”, small groups of 10-20 students for example, which allows contact tracing to be much easier. Neither of these options are perfect. If you half the lecture sizes, you’re going to need to double timetables. That means more staff need to be employed, longer and more difficult days for students, commuting and housing issues. If we wish to divide classes, where will the others go? It may not be possible for them to leave the environment of the campus and so they’ll need to occupy the library or cafés, which themselves will have the exact same issues with space.
During the beginning of the pandemic, we saw an attempt to use online learning for both second and third level students, with varying levels of success. On the one hand, it’s fantastic to have these extra resources online – lectures, tutorials, and exams. For some students being able to access exams from home provided them with a much more relaxing and comfortable experience. Previously, these services had been too difficult for the university to work out.
However, not everyone has access to the same facilities. Not everyone has a laptop and not everyone has high speed broadband. Some people have to share with siblings or parents who have school, college, or other work to complete. Even if universities provided students with laptops for learning, how could they guarantee that each student has reliable WiFi, somewhere quiet and safe to work and doesn’t need to share it with anyone else. How are all students expected to have access to these devices when NUI Galway for example has a higher application rate for their hardship fund than any other university in Ireland?
Finding accommodation is an issue year-on-year for students, new and old. Many universities are difficult to get to due to poor public transport. I for one do not have a direct way to get to NUI Galway from Mullingar. Some college accommodation can have up to five people per apartment, with some sharing the same bathroom. There are many other off-campus facilities too, but as they’re usually small, people living there will not be able to maintain distance from each other at all times.
Another problem is digs. Living with a family you don’t know means you can’t be sure they will follow the government’s guidelines and if they become ill, this will have an impact on you and your studies. Some people renting out rooms in houses may only do so from Sunday night to Thursday night, which is absolutely outrageous anyways. If universities are to compensate with lessons on Saturdays for example, what are these students supposed to do? Where do they stay Thursday and Friday nights? Again, this is another oversight by universities that is taking too long to rectify.
For too long student accommodation has been inadequate and we may see the effects of this more than ever due to COVID-19. You have to rely and trust the people you live to keep you safe.
Books and Materials
Many students do not purchase books for university, due to their cost, and instead rely on the library. Many books are not available for every student in a particular course. The solutions for the library have consisted of a queueing system and pre-booking online. Queuing will result in people missing out on renting books, as some courses have much more lecture time than others. This will mean some students won’t have time to queue or will have to sacrifice contact teaching. Pre-booking online will once again mean that students with the access to the necessary resources are at a significant advantage to students without.
Returning to university, and indeed starting it, is one of the best times of the academic year. This year, things will be different. Some people are going to struggle more than normal. Students and staff are going to be tested, not just academically. It is in thousands of people’s interest that the government gets a move on and begins to recommend, mandate and enforce the changes that are necessary to keep everyone safe, while trying to move back to normality as much as we can.